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Operation Migration

Operation Migration

Little compares to seeing the massive whooping crane gliding gracefully across the sky, not simply because of its sheer size, but also because of its near-miss with extinction.  In 1941 only 15 birds remained in all of North America.

Today, there are roughly 450 whooping cranes in the North American wild, but this species remains fragile. Ongoing conservation work is critical if future generations are to witness the breathtaking flight of these beautiful birds.

Since 2001, Operation Migration has played a leading role in reintroducing whooping cranes into eastern North America with an innovative program that guides captive-hatched whooping cranes with ultralight aircraft along their winter migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. Zoo New England is proud to support this groundbreaking conservation work, providing funds to cover the cost of training and leading young whooping cranes on their inaugural winter migration.

Bringing the birds back

The whooping crane (Grus Americana) is a rare species that once numbered in the thousands throughout Midwestern North America, nesting in wetlands and feeding on frogs, snails, insects, minnows, crabs, and other wetland wildlife. But the draining and conversion of wetlands to farmland in the Midwest and Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s caused both migrating and non-migrating populations to lose much of their natural habitat, and the whooping crane population began to die out. 

Whooping cranes were declared an endangered species in 1967, prompting captive breeding efforts and legal protections that allowed the species to survive and its numbers to rebound.  Besides the 450 living in the wild, there are roughly 162 whooping cranes living in captivity. Though their numbers are rising, there's clearly more work to be done to save these birds.

There is currently just one naturally occurring migratory flock of whooping cranes in the world. These birds migrate annually from Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park to the Texas Gulf Coast (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge) for the winter. Due to the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using just one migratory path, recovery attempts have involved attempting to create a second migratory flock with a path from Wisconsin to Florida.

Learning to soar

That’s where Operation Migration comes in. In cooperation with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, in 2001 Operation Migration began leading young captive-born whooping cranes on the more than 1100-mile trek from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida. The ultralight aircraft, piloted by Operation Migration’s staff, acts as a surrogate parent for the young birds on their journey, which begins in mid-September. To date, Operation Migration has guided 13 groups of juvenile whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. By spring, the cranes are independent enough to return to Wisconsin on their own, and they will continue the migration pattern independent of human assistance for the rest of their lives.

Before making their inaugural journey, the juvenile whooping cranes undergo a complex training process that begins with being acclimated to the sound of the aircraft engine (through recordings) even before they hatch. At about seven days old, they are introduced to the actual aircraft. Because the survival of whooping cranes in the wild depends on avoidance of human contact, the cranes’ human handlers must cover themselves completely in a white costume and utilize a hand puppet that resembles an adult whooping crane when they interact with whooping cranes chicks. The training period lasts about six months.

Learn more about these beautiful birds

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They can stand up to 5 feet tall with a wingspan of 7.5 feet. An average male whooping crane weighs about 16 pounds; an average female about 14 pounds. Adult birds are snowy white with black primary (or flight) feathers on their wings—which are only visible when the birds open their wings—and a bare red face and crown. Their bills are dark olive-gray, but become lighter during the breeding season.

Whooping cranes are monogamous and mate for life, but will re-mate following the death of a mate. Male and female whooping cranes share incubation and chick-rearing duties. The birds migrate in family groups, singly, in pairs or small flocks.

In flight, whooping cranes are distinguished from other large white birds (such as the American White Pelican, Tundra Swan and Lesser Snow Goose) by their long, forward-extended neck and legs that trail equally straight behind. In favorable weather conditions, and taking advantage of the most efficient air currents, a migrating whooping crane flies on fixed wings, like a glider. Birds spirals upward, glide down, and then spiral upward again, a pattern that’s energy efficient and allows them to fly nonstop for great distances. Cranes migrating south choose times when the wind is coming from the north. Conversely, when migrating north, they use winds coming from the south. 

Learn more about the whooping crane in Stone Zoo's animal section.

What you can do

  • Be a part of the extraordinary efforts to protect the whooping crane for future generations: donate to Zoo New England to support our conservation projects.
  • As the whooping crane population increases, sightings become common. If you’re fortunate to encounter a whooping crane, don't attempt to approach or feed it. If you must speak, do so quietly and away from the bird. Human exposure lessens the whooping cranes’ natural fear of humans, which is critical to their survival. Please report your observations to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service using this form.