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Imagine spending your time feeding, nurturing, and teaching the daily tasks of survival to a baby who could never know your true identity. At the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, employees wear disguises, never use their real voices, and use puppets to deliver food to the baby whooping cranes they care forall so that these little ones can be released to the wild never knowing they were raised by humans.
The whooping crane is the most endangered crane in the world. In the 1940s, these majestic creatures, which stand 5 ft tall and have a wingspan of 7 to 8 ft, were estimated to have a population of fewer than 20 birds, all part of a single flock. The USGS and its many partners are working to protect wild whooping cranes and their habitat, as well as to establish additional self-sustaining flocks. Current restoration efforts are attempting to establish a new nonmigratory flock in central Florida and an additional migratory flock that will breed at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and winter at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along the gulf coast of Florida. To tackle the challenges of establishing an additional migratory flock, the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center joined forces with Operation Migration, the International Crane Foundation, and other nonprofit organizations and government agencies to found the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.
At Patuxent, whooping cranes, or "whoopers," are hatched and raised in a carefully controlled environment designed to prepare them for their release into the wild. Employees wearing costumes to mask their human form use a whooper puppet head to teach the chicks to eat and swim, take them for walks, and introduce them to an ultralight aircraft, which will serve as a mechanical parent for their migration. Just before the chicks are ready to fledgeget off the ground on their own and flythey are transferred to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Fledging there causes the cranes to remember the refuge as their breeding territory. After completing their training in Wisconsin, the cranes are ready for the ultralight-guided migration to their winter grounds. By guiding juvenile cranes on their first migration and showing them the way from Wisconsin to Florida, the ultralight-aircraft pilots teach the cranes a new, safe migration route and reintroduce them to the core section of their historical breeding range.
On December 12, 2004, costumed pilots in three ultralight aircraft arrived at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, leading 13 juvenile whooping cranes to the completion of their first migration. The 1,200-mi trek over seven States took 64 days and turned out to be quite an adventure, marked by battles against bad weather, mountains, eagles, rogue cranes, infection, and other obstacles. In addition to the three ultralight aircraft, the cranes traveled with an entourage of five recreational vehicles (RVs), five trucks, a Cessna 182 aircraft, and a 32-ft equipment trailer. During the expedition, one aircraft is used to lead the flock, while the other two fly behind it, picking up and guiding any divergent groups or stragglers; meanwhile, personnel on the ground stay ready to follow stray whoopers all over the countryside, if necessaryall to ensure that not even the youngest, weakest, or most rebellious juveniles are left behind.
Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned. The cranes training for this year's flight class once numbered 15. Sadly, one crane became sick during the trip, and despite the best efforts of the team and veterinarians at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, she was euthanized to prevent further suffering. Another crane was dropped from the ultralight flight class because of developmental and behavorial problems; nevertheless, he made a successful migration later in the season.
The 2004 migration was the fourth annual ultralight-led migration of young cranes. As proof of the program's success, birds from earlier years are migrating north and south on their own. This year, in a preliminary supplemental release study, the juvenile crane deemed unfit for ultralight-flight school was released with some of the adult cranes at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to see whether he would make his way south by following some of the older birds. The juvenile arrived in Madison County, FL, on December 19, becoming the first crane in the new migratory flock to make his first journey south on the tails of older whooping cranes, rather than ultralight aircraft.
Read more about this year's migration, the supplemental release, and the current status of both the juvenile and adult cranes by visiting the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Web site and following the site's links to Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation.
For many, the whooping crane is the international symbol of conservation, and the story of this species' recovery from near-extinction is a powerful reminder that, despite numerous obstacles, through partnership and dedication we can make a difference. The Patuxent Whooping Crane project, as part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, works with individuals, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies from here to Canada to conserve the wild flock and reintroduce new thriving flocks of this stunning bird to the worldand their efforts have had great success. As of December 2004, the last remaining wild flock, which migrates from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, had grown to at least 213 birds, as reported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Tom Stehn; the nonmigratory flock in Florida had grown to about 90 birds; and the new migratory flock had 35 adults, soon to be joined by 14 juveniles.
For more information on USGS work with whooping cranes, visit the Whooping Crane Reports Page.
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