By Allison Sawyer
The roar of the ultralight plane’s engine signaled the birds’ arrival.
The small group of people who had braved the frigid October morning
and risen before dawn to watch the whooping crane migration stared
at the sky in silent reverence, open-mouthed as they passed overhead.
The sound of the loud, distinctive call that inspired the birds’ name
blared from the plane’s speakers, encouraging the whooping
cranes to follow. No one spoke until long after the crane-costumed
pilots and the black-tipped wings of their flock had disappeared
from view. A woman watching the migration for the first time eventually
broke the silence. “We need things like this to take the rough
spots off of our souls,” she said quietly, tears streaming
down her cheeks.
Courtesy of Whooping Crane
|An ultralight plane leads a flock of whooping
cranes from Wisconsin to Florida for the winter.
The grace and ease with which the seemingly odd group
of humans and cranes had taken flight together belied the extensive
preparation and efforts that the organizations in the Whooping Crane
Eastern Partnership (WCEP) had coordinated to make it happen. Canadian
non-profit organization Operation Migration supplied the tiny ultralight
planes, while the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center in Maryland provided most of the cranes. The International
Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo sent scientists and veterinarians
on the trip to monitor the birds during and after their journey.
members of the partnership agreed to lend their support at rest stops
the migration team would make about every 50 miles along their
trek from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
While onlookers at that morning’s Green County stop marveled
at the poignancy of the scene they had witnessed, members of the WCEP
bustled around the property and prepared to follow the cranes on the
ground to the next stop along their route. Emblazoned on the side
of several WCEP trucks, the words “Fewer than 500 whooping cranes
remain between survival and extinction” reminded everyone of
the leaps that have been made in the preservation of one of the world’s
oldest and rarest species of birds as well as the work that still
needs to be done to ensure their long-term survival.
Revived from the brink of extinction, the whooping cranes have made
an impressive comeback since their North American total hit an all-time
low of 21 in 1941. Thanks to the work of the WCEP’s reintroduction
project, 452 of the birds now live in wild or captive populations,
but those numbers are not enough to ensure the continuation of the
species. Several groups, including ICF, founded the WCEP in 1999 to
achieve the goals of a 1994 Whooping Crane Recovery Plan. The plan
aims to downgrade whooping cranes from endangered to threatened by
maintaining at least 40 nesting pairs in the last existing flock of
migrating whooping cranes and creating two additional wild flocks
with at least 25 breeding pairs each.
ICF education outreach coordinator Joan Garland says the three flocks
would mimic the historical distribution of whooping cranes before
they became so rare. She says having several flocks would also prevent
the entire species from being wiped out in an accident such as an
oil spill or forest fire. WCEP led the first class of whooping cranes
slated to become part of a new migratory flock south for the winter
in 2001 and hopes to reach its goal of having 125 whooping cranes
in Wisconsin by 2020, including 25 nesting pairs.
Courtesy of Whooping Crane
A bird caretaker wears a crane costume
to disguise his human features so the birds maintain the
people they need to survive in the wild.
A pioneer in the preservation of cranes and home to
the world’s only collection
of all 15 species, ICF works with WCEP partners to prepare each year’s
new class of birds for migration and reintroduction to the wild. The chicks
are raised at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, which begins taking
careful measures before the cranes have even hatched to ensure they will know
how to follow the ultralight on their first migration and eventually be able
to survive in the wild. ICF spokeswoman Kate Fitzwilliams says the cranes hear
recordings of an ultralight engine when they are still inside their eggs to
them from being afraid of the planes and are isolated from humans so they maintain
their natural fear of them. Whenever they approach the cranes, caretakers of
the birds wear crane costumes that disguise the human form and voice.
ICF curator of birds Mike Putnam says the highly impressionable whooping cranes
have trouble identifying with the correct species if they are raised by people
or other types of cranes. “We don’t know if they see themselves as
humans or us as cranes, but hand-raised whooping cranes regard people as conspecific
[members of the same species],” Putnam says. “They are more territorial
and aggressive toward humans than cranes who haven’t been directly exposed
A 1975 experiment conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian
Wildlife Service inadvertently demonstrated the tendency of whooping cranes
to embrace the species of their “parents” as their own. The “Gray’s
Lake Experiment” attempted to determine whether having sandhill cranes
raise the whooping cranes would be an effective way to keep the whooping cranes
wild. It wasn’t a bad idea, considering the tendency of cranes to be
excellent parents, but when the whooping cranes began to seek out a mate, the
wanted nothing to do with them.
The most famous example of cranes’ tendency to “imprint” upon
the species that parents them is the relationship between ICF co-founder George
Archibald and a female whooping crane named Tex, who had imprinted on people.
Archibald “courted” Tex, who lived with him. Fitzwilliams says
Tex was reportedly very territorial around Archibald and not at all fond of
his “other” wife,
a human female. Ironically, Tex was killed by a racoon on the day Archibald
went on Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show" to discuss their legendary romance
Putnam says that another method for preventing such infatuations between the
cranes and their human caretakers is to have adult whooping cranes raise some
members of their next generation on their own.
“Sometimes we give pairs of whooping cranes a dummy egg to incubate and,
if they’re doing a good job, we’ll give them a hatching egg and let
them raise it,” he says. “We might give them a sandhill crane first
because they’re heartier, and if something goes wrong we’d rather
not lose a whooper.” Maintaining the fragile population of whooping cranes
is an important task that often requires the public’s help in addition
to the work of scientists and organizations like ICF.
Garland says the foundation tries to focus on informing people and including
them in the ultralight migrations. “With the [WCEP] partnership, the media
was very involved in getting the word out the first year because it was a very
new idea,” Garland says. “In subsequent years, we have really tried
to focus on educating people about what we’re doing because we really
need their cooperation for the migrations to go smoothly.”
Since its inception 30 years ago, the ICF has prided itself on including the
community and making sure its efforts to save the iconic cranes are also beneficial
to the people who share their wetland habitats. “Wetlands for thousands
of years have been centers of human activity,” ICF President Jim Harris
cranes have survived have had a lot of human use, and it’s unrealistic
that people would just leave because they depend on [wetlands] in many places.”
UW-Madison botany professor and wetlands expert Joy Zedler agrees that preserving
the cranes’ habitats benefits humans in many ways. “Wetlands are
critical for keeping your drinking water clean, for reducing the risk of flooding
and for supporting the biodiversity that people enjoy, use for recreation, and
draw upon for food, fiber and, potentially, medicines,” Zedler says.
Harris says many people active in conservation have recognized the importance
with and helping people while protecting the environment, and ICF has tested
this practice around the world.
The foundation has put its philosophy to work in Caohai, China, where it teamed
up with a New York charity to offer loans to local residents in exchange for
their help in creating local businesses that are less damaging to the wetland
home of cranes living nearby. In the Amur River Basin, shared by Russia, China
and Mongolia, ICF is helping to establish three adjacent crane and wetland reserves
that will be administered by the three countries together. The group acknowledges
that in heavily populated areas such as China, people play an integral role in
the ecosystem and need to be involved in efforts to preserve it.
Courtesy of Anne Kubena
|Two cranes stroll around the grounds
of ICF. The foundation works hard to keep predators off its
property so the cranes can live in peace.
Fitzwilliams says ICF works hard to build good relationships
with the cranes’ neighbors in the U.S. as well. In
Briggsville, for example, ICF and local farmers cooperate to protect
both sandhill cranes and the crops they have a tendency to destroy.
“Our Field Ecology staff really needed to build good relationships
with farmers that were having problems with cranes and crops so
could start to solve those problems,” Fitzwilliams says. “Our
staff could never have had 10 years of good data on these birds
it weren’t for cooperative farmers. And there are many alternatives
to hunting that will solve crop damage that farmers are now open
While ICF relies heavily on the cooperation of the public, it also
counts on the public’s generosity to fund its projects. The
whooping crane reintroduction project alone costs WCEP around $1.8
million per year, and ICF’s yearly expenses total $2 million,
most of which comes from donations, grants, gift shop sales and admissions
fees. Harris says there are many reasons why the organization’s
projects are worth their price tags. “Cranes serve as ambassadors
for the places they live. When you protect them and their habitats,
you also preserve many other creatures who share those wetlands but
wouldn’t normally get any attention,” Harris says. He
also says cranes should be saved from extinction because they are
a world treasure, honored by many cultures around the globe for millions
In its 30 years of crusading for cranes, ICF has been able to impart
its knowledge to people far beyond its Baraboo headquarters. The
tireless efforts to involve community members in both its domestic
and international projects have helped spread the word about the
of endangered species of cranes and ensured that the birds with the
long past will enjoy a long future.
To learn more about whooping cranes and crane organizations visit
Crane Foundation: Visit this Web site for updates and details
about the foundation’s projects.
Crane Eastern Partnership: Visit this Web site for more information
on the whooping crane reintroduction project.
Migration: Visit this Web site for daily updates on the whooping
crane migration and for information on the ultralight planes.
See Cranes in Flight Click Here