Whooping cranes stalled in Clanton

Published 9:31 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fourteen young whooping cranes have been grounded in Chilton County for more than a week en route to their destination in Florida.

A team of 12 people — six pilots and a six-member ground crew — is leading the endangered cranes on their migration route to ensure their survival.

Somewhere in northwest Chilton County (the group does not reveal their exact location due to isolation protocol), the group awaits a clear day for flight.

“We’ve been watching the weather every day, watching for an opportunity,” said Liz Condie of Operation Migration, a nonprofit group dedicated to the birds’ continued existence.

This is the eighth consecutive year Operation Migration has led young cranes on their 1,285-mile migration route. They departed Oct. 17 from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and have thus far accumulated 813 miles.

Because the cranes are raised in captivity, they must be taught the route just once in order to survive, Condie explained.

“The purpose is to teach them the migration route so when they make it to Florida, they will self-initiate the migration back to Wisconsin in the spring,” she said. “We will start with new eggs and chicks next year.”

The group has two destinations. Seven of the cranes will end their journey at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee, while the other half will fly down to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

If the journey is successful, there will be 88 whooping cranes migrating on their own every year as a direct result of Operation Migration. And the journey will be made, even though the group is currently 287 miles (in terms of dollars) short of fully funding the project.

“We still have a third of the journey remaining,” Condie said. “One way or another, we will (complete the mission).”

This is the first year for Alabama to be included on the route. The main reason the route was changed was in an effort to pick up more favorable winds. Another reason was for pilot safety because of rough terrain encountered in the Appalachians on their easterly route.

Chilton County was selected as a landing site because of its rural farmland that allows for isolation that the birds need, Condie explained.

For the time being, the crew is staying tuned to weather reports and keeping their eyes to the sky for a break.

For those who take it upon themselves to care for the cranes, their mission is clear:

“We would like whooping cranes to be around for future generations,” Condie said. “And we think other people would as well.”

For more information, visit www.operationmigration.org.