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Just how do we condition birds to accept and follow the aircraft? 

click above to read the training protocol and view some video clips.


Sound Files

Whooping Crane
Unison Call
(334kb wav)

Flight Call (223kb wav)

Contact Call (69kb wav)

Sandhill Crane
Unison Call (259kb wav)

Flight Call (227kb wav)

"For the Whooping crane there is no freedom but that of unbounded wilderness, no life except its own. Without meekness, without a sign of humility, it has refused to accept our idea of what the world should be like. If we succeed in preserving the wild remnant that still survives, it will be no credit to us; the glory will rest on this bird whose stubborn vigor has kept it alive in the face of increasing and seemingly hopeless odds."
--Robert Porter Allen

Our Whooping Crane Story

We are often asked why we dedicate our time and effort to save Whooping cranes. The answer is simple for us; As aviators, we have a love for the creatures that taught us the art of flying. Now that they need our help, how can we refuse?

The Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane is the most famous endangered bird in North America. In part because it is large, distinctive, and photogenic and partly because, since 1967, Canadians and Americans have cooperated in a successful recovery program to safeguard it from extinction.


The adult Whooping Crane Grus americana, is the tallest North American bird. It has a long neck, long dark pointed bill, and long thin black legs. A large male is about 1.5 m tall. In the air, the wings measure 2 meters or more between the tips of the long black primaries, or flight feathers, which cannot usually be seen when the bird is at rest. 

The juvenile bird has dark brown eyes upon hatching, which change to light blue, and finally yellow as the bird matures. Plumage is reddish-brown. In adults and juveniles the primary wing feathers are black.

At close range, the adult Whooping Crane is an imposing bird, with stark-white feathers; short, black bristle like feathers on the crown and face, and a small black patch on the back of the head below the crimson crown. 

Whooping cranes take their name from their distinctive whooping call. During the early spring courtship, a pair of birds may perform a duet, or unison call. A nesting whooper frequently bugles loud and clear during the early morning hours. This sound carries over several kilometers, and it is used by the adults to advertise their breeding territory to other Whooping Cranes. Adult birds at the nest use a purring sound referred to as a contact call to communicate with newly hatched chicks.

When the weather is good and the winds favourable, a migrating Whooping Crane flies like a glider, on fixed wings. The bird spirals upwards (aided by thermal activity), glides down, dropping as low as 70 m above ground, and then begins spiraling upwards again. This spiraling and gliding, carried out when the cranes encounter suitable thermal updrafts, is energy-efficient and allows the cranes to fly nonstop for great distances. 

In flight, Whooping cranes can be distinguished from other large white birds by the long neck extended forward and legs that trail equally straight behind. Whooping cranes communicate vocally with each other even while flying, using flight calls.  Birds often confused with the Whooping Crane are American White Pelican, Tundra Swan, and Lesser Snow Goose. All three species are mostly or entirely white but, in flight, none has long legs trailing behind.


Each fall, the only naturally occurring Whooping cranes migrate south from Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park to their traditional wintering grounds in Texas at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The birds spend the winter feeding and resting. Wintering Whooping cranes prefer blue crabs and several types of clams, but they also eat crayfish, small fish, snakes, insects, acorns, and small wild fruit.

In early spring, while still on the wintering grounds, pairs of cranes whoop and dance as part of courtship. Dancing intensifies until the migrants depart, usually in mid-March. The breeding pairs begin arriving in northern Wood Buffalo National Park during the third week in April, where each pair establishes a territory. 

Breeding & Nesting

Whoopers usually build a nest in marshes or shallow ponds, in about 25 cm of water (the flightless chicks can swim to escape predators) and most often in relatively dense stands of bulrush. 

A pair usually has two eggs. Both eggs generally hatch, but if both eggs are left in the nest, usually only one chick survives. The reason for this may be related to a food shortage, particularly when wet areas begin to dry out and terrestrial predators, such as the gray wolf, are able to penetrate the cranes' nesting marshes.

The incubation period is 29? 30 days, and both parents share the task of incubating the eggs in the nest. Few eggs are lost to predators thanks, in part, to the vigil of the adult birds. The reddish orange young hatch during the last week in May or the first week in June. From then on, the parents are kept busy feeding their chicks. During the summer, the cranes rarely fly. Some birds may be incapable of flight during short periods due to the molt of major wing feathers.

Family groups frequent the shallows of small ponds and marshes, where the adults perhaps find larval forms of insects such as dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies, and also snails, small clams, water beetles, leeches, frogs, and small fish to feed their young. When the parent birds kill larger prey, such as snakes, mice, small birds, ducklings, and even birds up to the size of half-grown bitterns, they share the spoils of these hunts with their young.

By the end of September or early October the young birds are ready to try their wings on the 4000 km migration to the Texas winter range. On the way south, the birds spend one to five weeks feeding in their staging (stopover) areas in Saskatchewan. In these areas, undisturbed whoopers may spend the entire one- to five-week staging period on the same quarter or half-section of land. Here the birds fatten up on waste barley and wheat in stubble fields, and roost during the night in nearby wetlands.

Recovery Efforts

It is believed that approximately 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941 when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 birds. The wild flock has slowly increased to over 180 in late 1999. This flock winters in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas. In spring, they migrate north, nesting in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border of Alberta and Northwest Territories in Canada. This flock of whooping cranes is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location. With all the wild birds concentrated in one small area, the population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts. Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations.

International Whooping Crane Recovery Team

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT) is the governing body charged with responsibility of the species. Consisting of ten members: five Americans and five Canadians the team of ornithologists and biologists provide policy recommendations to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Primarily, the team plans actions to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo natural flock and to establish two additional flocks in efforts to safeguard the whooping crane from possible extinction. 

The team's efforts to establish a non-migratory Whooping crane flock began in Florida in 1993, using cranes hatched in captivity. In September, 1999, after searching for the best possible location to establish a second migratory flock, the team recommended  that the flock be taught a migration route with central Wisconsin as the northern terminus and the west coast of Florida as the new wintering location. The WCRT sanctioned Operation Migration's ultralight-led migration technique as the main reintroduction method.

Government Agencies and  Non-Profit Organizations joining forces to safeguard the rarest crane in the world.

To assist in carrying out this monumental reintroduction effort, several government and non-profit organizations have joined forces with Operation Migration and now comprise the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

Visit the WCEP website

The Founding Members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Include:

International Crane Foundation

Since it's founding in 1973, the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a non-profit organization, focuses attention on the conservation of the world's 15 species of cranes. Through its programs in education, research, field ecology, captive propagation, and reintroduction, ICF helps to ensure the survival of cranes and their habitats throughout the world.

ICF will have an active role in the reintroduction of an eastern migratory population of Whooping cranes. The new flock will be released in Wisconsin and taught to migrate to Florida. ICF will educate the public about the reintroduction effort through outreach programs and on-site tours.

The ICF Crane Conservation Department will provide expertise in rearing chicks for release, and monitor the health of the new flock. The ICF Development Team will participate in securing funding for this project.

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is a non-profit organization that promotes the knowledge, enjoyment, and stewardship of Wisconsin?s natural resources by providing educational programs and financially empowering grassroots as well as professional environmental programs. We help a variety of DNR programs in need of private sector support, but actively fundraise for selected major projects, like the whooping crane recovery effort. We are committed to raise start-up funds for the project?s first three years to help construct facilities and purchase equipment critical to the project?s success.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service are given the responsibility by law to recover endangered species. The service will facilitate a diverse partnership of federal, state, and private organizations whose common goal is to establish a second migratory flock of Whooping cranes in the eastern states.

Additionally, the service has a primary responsibility for operations at the Wisconsin release site (Necedah National Wildlife Refuge) and the Florida wintering site (Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge).

As part of the overall team, the service is also responsible for flyway states coordination, budget development, and project outreach and communications.

USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the U. S. Geological Survey provides research support to client bureaus in the Dept. of Interior, including the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other clients in the United States. Patuxent is located in Laurel, MD on 12,800 acres of land managed for a diversity of mid-Atlantic habitats.

Patuxent raises about two-thirds of all Whooping cranes for release to the wild, and will supply a substantial number of cranes for the Wisconsin-to-Florida release project.

Patuxent will also provide research and logistical support for the Wisconsin release. This support will include rearing Sandhill and Whooping crane chicks conditioned to follow ultralight aircraft. Patuxent will ship these chicks to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for continued ultralight training.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center

The USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) is a Federal diagnostic and research laboratory under the Department of Interior. The Center's focus is on prevention, detection and management of wildlife disease for the benefit of free-living wildlife. Efforts are concentrated on animals under Federal stewardship such as migratory birds and mammals, endangered species and animals on Federal lands. NWHC was established in 1975 and is based in Madison, Wisconsin. Center staff provide diagnostic and research services nationwide and internationally. The Center has provided veterinary consultation, diagnostic services, collaboration on health risk assessments and disease research in support of the crane project.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the State agency charged with managing Wisconsin's environment; from fish and wildlife to air, water, land, and outdoor recreation.

Wisconsin was the first State to officially partner with the Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the effort to establish an eastern-migrating population of Whooping cranes. The WCRT chose Wisconsin as the summer nesting site.

The state maintains and manages a portion of the wetland complex that will support the Whooping crane flock, and has supplied much of the environmental data used to assess the suitability of the Wisconsin site where the cranes will be released. The DNR is also funding the project coordinator's position and is providing many staff and department resources to the project.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is a private, non-profit organization established by Congress in 1984 to benefit the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants, and the habitat on which they depend. Its goals are conservation education, habitat protection and restoration, and natural resource management. The Foundation meets these goals by creating partnerships between the public and private sectors, and strategically investing in conservation projects.

The Foundation awards challenge grants in which awarded seed funds must be matched with additional funding. The Foundation's challenge grants not only increase dollars directed to conservation, but also increase organizations dedicated to conservation. The Foundation facilitates cooperation and buy-in from diverse stakeholders by creating partnerships among federal, state, and local governments; corporations; private foundations; individuals; and non-profit organizations.

Operation Migration is proud to be a founding member of the 
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

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