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You may remember last year's success story on a flock of sandhill cranes that made a long journey to wintering grounds, thanks to a airplane that lead the way. The mission, which traveled into east Tennessee, was quite a venture and it's now going to hopefully benefit some other feathered friends.

Whooping cranes will migrate across the skies of eastern North America this fall for the first time in more than a century as part of a bold experiment conducted by a partnership of Federal and state wildlife agencies, conservation groups and other private organizations led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Biologists will train a flock of about 10 young whooping cranes, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, to follow an ultralight aircraft across seven states from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Wisconsin to Chassahowitska NWR in Florida.

If all goes as planned, the birds will learn the migration route during the trip and return from Florida to Wisconsin on their own next spring, thereby establishing a second migratory whooping crane flock in North America.

Currently 174 whooping cranes migrate annually between wintering areas at Aransas NWR in Texas to nesting areas at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Biologists long have been concerned that this population might be wiped out by a natural event such as a hurricane or a human-caused disaster such as a chemical or oil spill.

Reintroducing a second migratory population in the East will provide insurance against such a disaster and move the species closer to recovery.

The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating mating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. Cranes live and breed in extensive wetlands, where they feed upon crabs, clams, frogs, and other aquatic organisms. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown.

Biologists believe the species numbered in the thousands in North American at one time but loss of wetland habitat, hunting, and egg and specimen collecting brought about a sharp decline in the species. By 1890, no migratory whooping cranes remained in eastern North America, and by the 1940s the species was on the verge of extinction.

Today, as a result of an ongoing recovery program, 260 whooping cranes exist in the wild. This includes a reintroduced non-migratory flock of approximately 86 birds that lives year round in central Florida.

 Biologists will commence the experiment in early July when approximately 10 whooping crane chicks raised at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will be transferred to Necedah NWR. The birds will undergo three months of specialized training with ultralights, using the same techniques used successfully last year with a flock of sandhill cranes that were taught to fly the same migration route.

Steve McCadams
  is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing area and host of The Outdoor Channel's television series  IN-PURSUIT. 




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