On Friday, five of the original six, 2012 fledgling Whoopers migrated safely to St Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Crawfordville, FL. This is the 12th generation of cranes led to Florida by ultralight aircraft. The successful trip brings the effort another step closer to providing a viable Eastern migratory flock and reestablishing these endangered birds. Last year’s flight was forced to end at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alabama and because of this year’s small flock size, our area will again not have the annual flyover or be receiving any cranes at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Whooping Cranes, like the manatee, are a signature species to our area and will certainly be missed.
These flights are organized by Operation Migration, whose mission is to establish an Eastern colony of wild whooping cranes, as a counterpart to the remaining Western migrating colony. These birds are hatched from the eggs of non-migratory captive whooping cranes in Wisconsin. They are reared by humans dressed in crane costumes and live at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge until the fall migration. A costumed pilot then leads them to Florida so that they may learn the migration route and be able to then make the trip on their own from then on.
Prior to 1860, it is estimated that there were 1,400 whooping cranes. By 1941 the population of the last migrating flock dwindled to 15. With protection, the wild Western flock has slowly rebounded to over 180. There are small non-migratory flocks located in Louisiana, Wisconsin and Kissimmee, FL. There are fewer than 600 wild Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 445 of them in the wild. The goal of the Eastern Migration project is to establish a self-sustaining population of at least 120 adult whooping cranes and 30 breeding pairs. Currently there are 104 birds and twenty pairs. However, high mortality rates make the population somewhat unstable.
People familiar with Operation Migration, may not realize that it is only a part of the Whooping crane picture. Established in 1967, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, is a Canadian/American partnership and the governing body charged with responsibility of the species. They oversee Operation Migration’s work, which only began in 1999. In 2005, another migration effort was started, called Direct Autumn Release. These chicks are raised with the same protocols of the ultralight chicks, but are also imprinted to adult cranes. When they fledge and have the ability to fly, they are released at sites where older wild cranes reside. The young DAR birds follow these cranes and learn to migrate from them. They are tracked by radio and satellite telemetry. This method has been a successful supplement to the plane led project.This year, there were 6 DAR chicks released, in addition to the 6 who followed the ultralight aircraft.
All told, there are many organizations partnered in this recovery and they have come together to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (also on Facebook). Having the single wild colony in Texas puts the species at risk. A bad storm, an oil spill, or other disaster could be catastrophic. This is a costly venture, with private contributions making about 60% of the funding. It’s positive results speak for themselves and it has proven itself a good worthwhile project.
You can read this year’s migration log here.
A great source for frequently asked questions is here.
Visit the Friends of Chazz site, to learn about the cranes there and the Refuge.