|Whooping Cranes / USFWS Photo|
There are 10 cranes in the 2011 flock, five male and five female. This year, the birds were trained how to follow the ultralight planes at a new site, the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, which is southeast of Necedah, Wis., where earlier flocks have been trained.Half of the cranes will spend the winter at St. Mark's NWR, and the other half will winter at Chassahowitzka NWR. Currently there are 96 Whooping Cranes in the eastern migratory population and about 400 overall in the wild.
The endangered birds are part of an effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of government and private agencies from Canada and the United States that works to ensure the crane's survival.
Before the whoopers are born, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near the eggs. After they are born, the birds are fed and cared for by people dressed in whooping crane costumes carrying whooping crane puppets. No one ever speaks near the birds to prevent them from bonding with humans.
The birds imprint on the ultralights and their costumed pilots, and are trained to follow the aircraft to learn how to migrate.
The program is designed to create a second migratory flock of whoopers in the event members of the only existing wild migrating flock, which flies from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, get sick or die off. The goal is to have 125 individual birds, including 25 breeding pairs, in the Eastern Migratory flock.
Once the birds finish their southern migration, they fly north on their own in the spring. The first year of the program, 2001, was also the migration that took the least amount of time, only 48 days. The longest migration was 97 days in 2007. The length of the trip depends on weather conditions. For the safety of the pilots and their precious charges, they only fly in favorable weather.
You can follow updates about the journey on the Operation Migration website.