Endangered whooping cranes to arrive at Chassahowitzka listen12/14/10 Matthew Cimitile
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Five whooping cranes, led by ultra light aircraft, should arrive to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River by Friday. It’s the tenth straight year the endangered birds have traveled to Florida.
Ten whooping cranes from the reintroduced eastern United States flock began flying south from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 10. Over 60 days later the birds have traversed seven states and 1200 miles and are within sight of reaching their wintering grounds at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges. Ivan Vicente is visitor’s service specialist at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
"Birds have actually arrived to Guilford County, Florida and Jefferson County. They already split the population; the 10 birds have been split into groups of five. Five that are going to St. Marks, five that are going to go to Chassahowitzka. The last staging at Chassahowitzka is at Halpata Preserve State Park and that very well could happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Hopefully the birds will be in Chassahowitzka by Friday this week."
The highly endangered whooping crane is known for its loud, single-note call and their migrations in which juveniles are led by human-flown ultra light aircraft. Their migration really begins at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where most of the cranes are hatched and learn to follow ultra light aircraft. Liz Condie is Director of Communication for Operation Migration, a non-profit that promotes the conservation of migratory species like whooping cranes and leads the cranes on their southward migration.
"While the chicks are still in the egg a tape recording of a whooping crane mother's group call as well as the ultra light engine noise is played to them and that's their first introduction. At about three to five days of age the chicks are then started to be taken outside and they're introduced to the ultra light then. First just the engine noise and eventually bribing them, if you will, with treats, getting them to follow the trike. They are conditioned with that trike until about 40-45 days of age and then they are crated and shipped to central Wisconsin where their socialization and conditioning continues with the trike until they get their flight feathers. Once their strength, stamina and loyalty to the aircraft is built up, which usually takes to the fall, we launch them on migration and lead them south."
As recently as 10 years ago there were no whooping cranes in the eastern United States. Their reintroduction capped a long recovery from a population that was as low as 16 in 1941. Condie said hunting and destruction of habitat were the primary reason for the near extinction and things only turned around with the adoption of the Endangered Species Act.
"In the early 1940s there were only 16 whooping cranes left in the world. They were part of what is now called the Wood Buffalo-Aransas population, the only naturally occurring wild population of whooping crane. Their reduction in numbers was basically the result of overhunting and loss of habitat, the same kind of things we see today. That population has recovered substantially over the years since that time primarily because of the Endangered Species Act which outlawed hunting of those creatures and protected them as well."
Today, there are over 500 whooping cranes spread among four populations. Condi said the reintroduced eastern U.S. population will stay in Florida for about four to five months before their natural instincts take over and they return, without assistance, back to where they came.
"We only have to show them the migration route once, one way, lead them to Florida this one time when they are still juvenile. In the spring they initiate their own migration on whatever signal it is that mother nature or their genes have ingrained in them and they migrate back north on their own. In excess of 80 to 85 percent of them return exactly to the core reintroduction area that they left from in Wisconsin."
In 10 years 115 cranes have completed the migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Vincent said that within the next few years the project could meet its goal of having 25 established nesting pairs.
"The project is pretty soon ending. In a couple more years there will be no more ultra light migrations. It is believed, in the very short term, there will be 25 established nesting pairs already. The main goal is that these birds will be flying on their own, year to year, which is already happening but we really would like to see 25 before we let go and let the birds be wild. That very well could happen in the near future. That's the entire goal of this is to see birds in Georgia, Florida, Alabama during the winter months and then birds up north during the summer months."
To find about a whooping crane fly over event, you can contact the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge’s office.