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Unlike sandhill cranes that nest in small numbers in northern Indiana and are encountered in flocks of several hundred during fall and spring migration throughout the state, endangered whooping cranes are seen mainly as single birds or in groups of 2-6 individuals. These large white birds with black wing-tips are often associated with sandhill cranes in fields or wetland areas.
Whooping cranes observed in Indiana are the result of a restoration effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of governmental agencies and private organizations to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States. Since 2001, captive-bred whooping cranes have been taught to follow ultralight aircraft in order to teach them a migration route from central Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Until 2008, this route took them through Indiana, and free-flying birds regularly stop in Indiana during the fall and spring seasons. Other birds have been released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds are expected to learn the migration route. Once led south, the cranes are able to migrate on their own, without assistance, in following years.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering and wintering grounds. All birds have unique combinations of colored bands as well as a radio transmitter. Not all transmitters are functional, however, so public sightings of whooping cranes are of great help in tracking these birds. If someone observes a whooping crane in Indiana, report them at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm
Anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild should give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. In 2008, there were only about 525 birds in existence, 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 68 birds reintroduced by WCEP, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 35 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/.