By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Whooping cranes: Ultimate snow birds
Placeholder Image
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge - Flight time from Madison to Chicago - 50 minutes; from Chicago to New York - two hours, 40 minutes; and, from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassaho-witzka NWR in Florida - nine weeks.

When seven whooping cranes folded their wings Jan. 12 at an enclosed facility near Crystal City, Florida, their journey had covered more than 1,200 miles in 40-mile increments, with numerous layovers due to bad weather, tired limbs and a host of logistical problems. Another seven of the class of 2009 were dropped off at the St. Mark's NWR near Tallahassee in northern Florida.

At various points along the way, throngs of volunteers rushed to offer respite to ultralight pilots leading the procession and erect temporary pens to provide lodging for the cranes. As the cranes neared final approach, newspapers throughout Florida heralded their return, drawing hundreds of onlookers at various signposts along the route.

Their arrival marked the ninth year of success for Operation Migration, a recovery effort designed to increase the whooping crane population from just 15 a few decades ago to more than 300 today.

Why two locations? Early on in this remarkable tale of recovery, all of the fledglings arriving from Wisconsin wintered at the Crystal Lake location. That protocol ended when the entire class of 2006 (17 cranes in all) was wiped out during a tropical storm that hit the Gulf region.

According to Wildlife Biologist Joyce Kleen at Chassahowitzka, experts were puzzled over the deaths, since a few inches of water in the pens housing the cranes should not have been fatal. "Necropsies were performed on four of them, two each at two different laboratories," she said.

"They found out they were electrocuted," Kleen said. "Apparently, lightening struck the fence and traveled through the water."

The tragic fate of the cranes confirmed the need to provide alternate habitats. Scientists had already expressed concerns that having all the wild whooping cranes in one wintering and breeding location could lead the species to extinction. Disease, bad weather or other natural or man-made occurrences could destroy the entire flock.

The only other wild flock of whooping cranes winters in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas. Each spring, they migrate to the Wood Buffalo National Park on the border between Alberta and Northwest Territories in Canada to nest.

The Wisconsin-Florida connection began in 1989 when the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo received 22 chicks from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Thus, another habitat was established.

Having been successfully raised in captivity, however, the problem of adapting the birds to a migratory life cycle needed to be addressed. The answer was Operation Migration involving ultralight aircraft to serve as surrogate adult birds during migration, the assistance of hundreds of volunteers, and both public funding and private donations. The first flight of whooping cranes departed from the ICF site for Florida in 2001.

A similar fate confronted the sandhill crane as its population declined to approximately 25 breeding pairs in the 1930s. It was then that Conservationist Aldo Leopold placed sandhills on Wisconsin's first endangered species list. Now a common sight in southern Wisconsin, sandhill cranes in the state number more than 13,000, according to the ICF. With continued support, the whooping crane might enjoy the same success.

Go to to learn more about the work of the International Crane Foundation or to make a donation.

- Lee Fahrney is the Monroe Times outdoors writer. He can be reached at (608) 967-2208 or at