Wildlife researchers leading a flock of young whooping cranes south for the winter are warning people to stay out of their way after an apparently curious ultralight pilot disturbed the endangered birds.
MILWAUKKEE − Wildlife researchers leading a flock of young whooping cranes south for the winter are warning people to stay out of their way after an apparently curious ultralight pilot disturbed the endangered birds.
A team of pilots is leading 14 whooping cranes from Wisconsin to central Florida, using an ultralight plane and even wearing crane-like costumes to minimize the birds' contact with humans.
Last month in Illinois, another ultralight flew about 100 feet behind the researchers' plane, without radio contact, scaring the birds, said Joe Duff, chief executive officer of Operation Migration, who was flying the research plane at the time.
"It's when the cranes blast ahead of the aircraft like that that things become dangerous," because the birds could collide with wires atop the aircraft, Duff told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The guy was probably nothing more than curious, but that's the last thing I'd do - fly behind or beside another ultralight. The pilot can't see you."
The other ultralight peeled off to the right, leaving Duff to calm the cranes. He said the other pilot must have known what was happening.
"The cranes have 7-foot wingspans," he said. "It's not like I'm leading a flock of chickadees."
By Friday, the flock of 14 cranes had reached Indiana's Boone County, about 340 miles from the starting point at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Researchers pick up cranes that drop out during the day by truck, and use portable pens to keep the birds together overnight or when bad weather keeps them from flying.
The cranes were hatched over the summer at a Maryland refuge and raised at Necedah.
The researchers have been working to establish a second migratory flock of the endangered birds since 2001. About three dozen cranes now make the flights on their own.
The only other migrating flock of whooping cranes has about 270 birds and migrates from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast for the winter.
At 5 feet tall, whooping cranes are North America's tallest birds and one of the world's rarest. The whooping crane was near extinction in 1941, with only about 20 left.
Source: Associated Press