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Whooping cranes majestically grace Illinois skies     Send a link to a friend

[OCT. 29, 2004]  SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Department of Natural Resources revealed that 14 whooping crane chicks, led by an ultralight, are migrating through Illinois the next several days as part of their 1,228-mile migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast. The Department of Natural Resources is providing support to the bird migration, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, led by Operation Migration.

"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," Christian added.

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 weather."

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 www.operationmigration.org/Field_Journal.

[Illinois Department of Natural Resources news release]

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