Ultralight planes led a flock of whooping cranes into New Mexico Saturday, the latest leg of a journey to teach the majestic white birds how to migrate and prevent their extinction.
The migration, which began Monday in Grace, Idaho, was in the sixth day of an 800-mile odyssey to determine whether the whoopers will follow ultralight planes to winter nesting grounds.
If they do - and if they migrate back north in the spring, as hoped - then ultralights would also help introduce a new migratory flock of whoopers to the Southeast.
Just 371 whooping cranes are known to exist. The only migratory flock, 180 whoopers, flies between Canada and Texas.
The destination of the four Idaho whoopers, flying with eight sandhill cranes, is New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 80 miles south of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande.
Although the whoopers have shown they will follow the ultralight plane piloted by Idaho rancher Kent Clegg, it’s still too soon to pronounce the experiment a complete success, observers said.
“They need to observe the birds all winter long and see what they do in the spring,” Hans Stuart, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Saturday.
“So far, so good,” he said. “We want to keep watching and see how they fit into a wild environment.”
The cranes were hatched in Maryland and Wisconsin and the hatchlings sent to Idaho, where Clegg has had success teaching domestic sandhills how to return to the wild.
If the whoopers follow the sandhills’ lead, the plan is to attempt to teach another whooping crane flock to migrate to Louisiana and Florida, establishing two U.S. flocks.
A second migratory population would prevent the nation’s whooping crane population from being wiped out in the event of a disaster affecting the Texas flock, said Tom Stehn of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Right now the only thing that appears to be in their way are other birds.
A crane was injured in an attack by a golden eagle Thursday but was recovering well Saturday, riding in a trailer on highways.
Nearly 150,000 birds spend winter at Bosque del Apache, including nearly 20,000 sandhills, 75,000 ducks and 50,000 geese.
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