11/13/2012 08:35

A breeding pair of whooping cranes was spotted in Illinois, reported by, March 6, 2011, taking advantage of wetlands restored along their migration route in Lawrence County along the Embarrass River. 453 acres of contiguous floodplains were restored as one of eleven restorations in Illinois that resulted from the Illinois Recovery Act.

            The Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided funding  for NRCS to offer landowners opportunities to take cropland in flood prone areas out of production and restore the land to more natural conditions (your tax dollars at work). That this pair of cranes found their way to this suitable habitat on their own is evidence that, when habitat is improved, endangered species can return.

            Wisconsin Natural Resources, October 2012, reports on a long history of efforts to restore the endangered whooping crane that, in 1946, were numbered at 16 whoopers at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast – the last wild whooping cranes on earth sixty-six years ago.

            With federal protection and management, the species began to recover. Twelve years later, there were 32 cranes at Aransas, including nine new fledglings. But droughts and diseases, storms, power lines and illegal hunting, all took their toll.

            In 1967, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began a whooping crane recovery program at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel. Maryland. In 1975, Patuxent had a successful captive breeding program and the wild population was growing. Forty-nine wild whoopers made the 2,500-mile migration from Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park to Aransas Refuge.     

            Having all the whoopers in one flock seemed risky. But a new flock of captive-raised chicks would have no adult cranes to show the way. From 1975 through 1989, USFWS biologists placed 287 whooping crane eggs into wild sandhill nests hoping that the abundant sandhill cranes would train the fledglings. After some setbacks the Aransas flock reached 149 birds.

            Sculptor William Lishman, recalling how geese had been trained to migrate by following an ultra-light, captured the interest of the International Recovery Team experts and officials. In 1995, Ken Clegg was finally allowed to attempt this migration with sandhill cranes. Then in 1997, whooper chicks raised by costumed handlers  left Clegg’s ranch in Idaho with 12 whoopers following his ultra-light who then settled in to migrate with a flock of sandhill cranes.

            Necedah Wildlife Reguge in Wisconsin was chosen as a new training site for a new permanent flock with a wintering site in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Tampa, Florida. The first class was 2001. This year’s training flock stopped in Winnebago County on October 8, 2012 and visited several wetland sites in Illinois before they departed Wayne County on November 4, 2012 for Kentucky. Search “whooping cranes” to find websites and blogs that track their progress.           


Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 11/7/12/12 (for publication on 11/10/12 in the Journal Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at