This fall whooping cranes will fly over the skies of eastern North America for the first time in more than a century, and their guide and surrogate parent will be an ultralight aircraft.
The 1,200-mile journey will begin in October as researchers lead 10 young whooping cranes from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to the cranes' wintering grounds in Florida.
If all goes as planned, the birds will learn the migration route and return from Florida to Wisconsin on their own next spring, thereby establishing a new flyway for whooping cranes in North America.
Following an ultralight aircraft, the whooping cranes will cross seven states and make some 40 stops along the way.
Unlike sandhill cranes, whose numbers have rebounded in recent decades, whooping cranes are still on the federal endangered species list.
The whooping crane flight will be conducted by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, various state fish and wildlife agencies, and private conservation organizations.
About half of the project's $1.3 million cost has been covered by private donations, and more than 40 private landowners have offered their property for use as overnight sites for the migrating cranes.
Currently about 174 whooping cranes migrate each year between their wintering grounds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas to their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Biologists say a new migratory route is needed as a backup in case a disaster, such as a hurricane or an oil spill, wipes out the existing flock.
Last year researchers flew the same migration route with a flock of sandhill cranes to test the feasibility of ultralight-led technique. On April 17 the sandhill crane flock, all wearing radio transmitters, returned to the grass strip in Wisconsin, thus completing their migration and paving the way for this year's experiment with whooping cranes.
The 10 whooping crane chicks selected for the flight will spend the next three months at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin where they will imprint on the ultralight that will lead them to Florida.
In charge of the chicks' training is Operation Migration, a non-profit organization that pioneered similar ultralight-led migrations with Canada geese, trumpeter swans, and sandhill cranes.
Heather Ray, spokesperson for the Operation Migration, said the trainers go to great lengths to keep the whooping cranes as fearful of people as they would be if raised in the wild.
"The chicks never see humans," Ray said. "The trainers wear crane costumes - not so much to look like a crane as to mask the human form. The protocol is pretty strict. There's no talking, coughing or sneezing in the presence of these birds."
The crane chicks are currently undergoing "ground training" to teach them to follow the ultralight on the ground. The chicks are placed inside a circular pen with a costumed pilot who slowly taxies the ultralight around the outside of the enclosure.
An adult whooping crane puppet is attached to the ultralight to encourage the chicks to follow, and as a reward, the puppet head drops mealworms to the chicks.
To acclimate the chicks to the language of cranes, speakers mounted on the ultralight play recorded vocalizations of adult whooping cranes.
Ray said that the chicks should begin flying in about three weeks and that their first flight behind the ultralight will last a mere 10 or 15 seconds.
By the end of September the young cranes should be up to 30 minutes of flying time. Following the updrafts produced by the ultralight, they'll soar at 35 mph while hardly moving their wings.
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