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Make Way for Whoopers
Dressed in white robes and masks and carrying puppets, conservationists determined to bolster whooping crane numbers train fledglings how to migrate to safety.

Listen to a podcast on whooping crane recovery efforts here.

Native to North America, whooping cranes are the continent’s tallest bird, standing well over four feet. The span of their snowy white wings—which end in long black feathers only visible during flight—can be twice that.

Hunting and loss of the birds’ wetland habitat for farming pushed them nearly to extinction. Thanks to hunting restrictions and the conservation of a few key wetlands, a small flock survived and now totals more than 250 birds that migrate between Canada and Texas.

One healthy flock is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean much for the prospects of an entire species. In 2001, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership formed in an effort to establish another population of whoopers in Wisconsin. A collective of government agencies and non-profits, the partnership includes Operation Migration, a program that uses ultralight aircraft to guide whooping crane chicks from their summering grounds in Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to a haven along Florida’s Gulf coast. The idea is to establish a secure population of birds that can raise their own chicks and teach them the migration route. This year’s class of 2009 promises to be the largest flock Operation Migration has ever led south.

Even if this year’s migration is a success, however, Necedah scientists in Wisconsin will still have a mystery to solve if Wisconsin’s whoopers are to have a fighting chance in the wild. 

Learn more about whooping crane recovery efforts in this Audubonmagazine.org exclusive podcast.

Read related story: “Breakout

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