"Providing safe passage for these birds through
Illinois is critical to helping rebuild the endangered species,"
said Joel Brunsvold, director of the Department of Natural
Resources. "We are proud to be partners in this program and support
nurturing the whooping crane."
These majestic birds, the largest in North
America, left Necedah, Wis., on Oct. 10. They are following three
ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration pilots. Illinois
is one of the eight states the ultralight-guided migration will fly
over before reaching Florida.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an
international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting
this project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled
species in eastern North America.
"The state of Illinois is a key partner in this
unprecedented effort to reintroduce whooping cranes into the eastern
flyway," said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
a founding partner in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. "We
are grateful for the efforts of the Illinois DNR and our other state
colleagues in helping to make this project a success. We certainly
couldn't do it without them.
"Because the birds have a sort of internal
Global Positioning System, they only need to be escorted one time.
They will make the migration on their own through the rest of their
lives, after following this route on their initial journey,"
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction
in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 300 birds in the wild. The
whooping cranes currently crossing Illinois are each 5 feet tall
with a wingspan of 6 feet.
"These birds are spectacular," Brunsvold said.
"They used to be native to the Midwest, and with efforts such as
this, will hopefully one day flourish in the wild again."
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The birds will make three stops in Illinois: in
Stevenson, LaSalle and Kankakee counties. Through the length of
their journey, more than 35 private landowners have volunteered
their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team.
A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each
morning's flight, and all of the team members who interact with the
cranes wear costumes to mask their human form and use adult crane
puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors.
"The journey is very much like the one
chronicled in the movie ‘Fly Away Home,' said Christian. "The
biggest challenge we face is weather. Conditions must be ideal --
clear, with low winds -- to ensure the safety of both the birds and
the ultralight pilots. Sometimes, we are grounded for several days
because of inclement weather. Then it becomes a race against winter
The whooping crane chicks hatched at the U.S.
Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel,
Md., where they were introduced to ultralights and raised in
isolation from humans. The Operation Migration pilots along with
biologists from Patuxent and the International Crane Foundation
spent the summer conditioning the cranes to fly gradually longer
flights behind the ultralights -- the cranes' surrogate parents.
These cranes represent the fourth generation of
birds to make this historic, assisted migration from Wisconsin to
Florida. In 2001, project partner Operation Migration's pilots led
the first whooping crane chicks that were conditioned to follow
their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah National Wildlife
Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Gulf
Coast. In 2002 and 2003 biologists and pilots from the Whooping
Crane Eastern Partnership conditioned and guided additional groups
of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka. There are now 35 migratory
whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.
The birds' journey can be tracked on the
Internet. For daily updates, visit the Whooping Crane Eastern
Partnership website at
www.bringbackthecranes.org. Daily updates are recorded at (904)
232-2580, ext. 124. Further information is available at
Department of Natural Resources news release]