All 18 young whooping cranes that were led south from Wisconsin with an ultralight last fall were killed in a Florida storm. As of January, 2007, there were 82 surviving Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population. Subtract 18 and there may have been additional losses to the whooping cranes in the wild.
Current speculation is that a storm surge drowned the birds. The cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla.. Official flock status numbers at WhoopingCrane.com will eventually be updated to give the best count.
The other wild whooping crane flock in North America has about 237 birds and migrates from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock in Florida has about 53 birds. If captive birds are counted, the number of whooping cranes in the world is 500.
The two chicks are offspring of a pair of whooping cranes that are a part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a collaboration of non-profit organizations, individuals and government agencies whose goal is to bring a migratory flock of whooping cranes back to eastern North America. The hatching of these two chicks is a major milestone in this effort.
Whooping Crane Migration
Operation Migration teaches a migratory route to endangered birds. To do so, they raise young whooping cranes in isolation, which then fledge over their future breeding territory in Wisconsin. When the time comes to migrate, they follow an ultralight aircraft from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Once they have learned the migratory route they migrate on their own the following year.
Wild whooping cranes are an endangered species that before this project only existed in the wild in two flocks. One is a non-migratory flock in Florida and the other is a migratory flock that summers in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The National Audubon Society's 2006 list of the top ten endangered birds in the United States lists the whooping crane third behind the ivory-billed woodpecker and California condor.
Due to the risk of both of the natural flocks being wiped out by a single event such as a hurricane, an additional, experimental, flock of whooping cranes was established in the fall 2001. 64 of the 76 birds released for this experimental migratory flock have survived to April, 2006.
And now we can add two more to that population count.
On Friday, a group of endangered whooping cranes took to the skies, migrating from Necedah, Wisconsin, to their winter habitat in Florida—1,200 miles away.
The 20 cranes, which were hatched and raised in captivity, have to be taught to migrate. (Whooping cranes learned their migration route by following their parents, but the knowledge was lost when the population dwindled and no wild birds used the flyway.) So Operation Migration's pilots in ultralight planes lead the birds south.
The birds' route takes them from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in Wisconsin, to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Read the Operation Migration field journal to see where the flock is today and what's been happening to them.
(The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which also helps to raise endangered whooping cranes, has links to lots more resources.)