On the Brink of Extinction
Since the time of dinosaurs, Whooping cranes have migrated between their wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast and their breeding grounds in northern Canada. On the brink of extinction, only 15 wild migratory Whooping cranes remained in the early 1940s.
Bringing Back the Cranes
In 2001, with ultralight aircraft leading the way, a tiny new wild migratory flock was reintroduced to the eastern U.S. To start this new flock, scientists took eggs laid by Whooping cranes in captivity. The first chicks hatched in 2001. Raised by humans hidden and silent under special costumes, these chicks had no natural crane parents. Instead, the young learned their fall migration route by following costumed pilots flying ultralight aircraft. Each fall for the next 15 years these pilots, from an organization called Operation Migration, led a new group of captive, costume-raised young cranes south to a selected wintering grounds each autumn. Costume-raised cranes in the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) program at ICF were alsoreleased each fall among wild cranes to be "adopted" and learn the migration route with older cranes. Returning north independently each spring, these birds slowly grew the flock to about 100.
2016: A New Plan
When the nesting pairs had little success adding babies to the flock over 15 years, it was clear that something else was needed to help the flock grow. In 2016, captive-hatched young cranes were again brought to central Wisconsin. This time marked a change in method; all were raised by captive adult cranes and no human contact. Each was carefully released near selected wild adult cranes in the eastern migratory flock. Experts hope these adults will let the youngsters join them to learn the migration route and experience how wild cranes learn from other cranes. Will it work? We shall see!
Following the Cranes and Celebrating Survival
Species recovery is a long-term challenge. The recovery goal is a self-sustaining population of at least 1,000 Whooping cranes in North America by 2035. Journey North celebrates the stories of survival as we follow the annual cycle of this endangered species. Every year is an exciting new chapter in the efforts to bring Whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction!