A flock of whooping cranes that has spent the past six weeks in northwest Alabama are looking for a new home.
The assisted migration of the rare birds has ended after bad weather, a government investigation and the reluctance of the young cranes to continue flying south. The the journey that was scheduled to end in Florida has been on hold since early December.
“The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is meeting this week in Wisconsin. A decision will be made at the meeting about where we will go from here with the cranes,” said Liz Condie, CEO and co-founder of Operation Migration, the group that was leading the birds from Wisconsin to Florida.
The partnership includes Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service and seven other agencies and organizations working to restore the whooping crane population.
Among the options likely to be discussed include hauling the nine birds to Florida in crates where they would be released at two wildlife refuges. Another is to release the cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur.
“We’re really not sure what all the options are that will be discussed at the meeting,” Condie said. “All the options that have been considered so far have pros and cons. There could be some new options develop before a decision is made on Wednesday or Thursday.”
Condie said one concern about releasing the young whooping cranes at Wheeler Refuge is that they might be unsure of the flight path back to their summer homes in Wisconsin after being hauled to Decatur in crates.
Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said a small flock of whopping cranes is spending the winter at Wheeler Refuge.
McKenzie said the refuge would provide suitable habitat for the rare birds, but stressed no decision has been made on where they will be released.
Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who lives in Florence, said the whooping cranes now at Wheeler Refuge could possibly serve as mentors to the juvenile birds when they fly back to Wisconsin for the summer.
Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in the world. They were pushed to the brink of extinction by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. In 1941, there were just 21 wild and two captive whooping cranes in North America.
Today, there are 437 wild whooping cranes in North America, according to Operation Migration.
Operation Migration has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies beginning in 2001 to raise whooping cranes in captivity and then teach the birds to migrate by having them follow ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida. The birds learn the migration route after being led on the journey once by the ultralights.
No tax money is used for the assisted migrations, which are funded through donations.
This year’s migration arrived in Franklin County on Dec. 11 and was scheduled to leave the next day. Bad weather delayed the departure for almost two weeks before the migration was then put on hold to allow Operation Migration employees and volunteers to go home for the holidays.
The birds remained grounded after the holidays as Federal Aviation Administration officials investigated a report that Operation Migration paid its ultralight pilots to fly. Federal rules prohibit ultralight pilots from receiving compensation.
Operation Migration officials contend the pilots are paid for helping care for the birds and other duties but volunteer their flying time. On Jan. 9, the FAA granted the group a waiver so this year’s migration could continue.
Four attempts at resuming the migration advanced the birds only 15 miles into northern Winston County. The cranes refused to follow the ultralight aircraft to Jasper, the next scheduled stop on the journey. On the latest attempt to continue the migration Sunday, two dominant birds in the flock repeatedly broke from the formation behind the ultralights, taking the other whooping cranes with them.
The pilots had hoped to attempt resuming the migration Monday without the two dominant birds but strong winds prevented them from flying.
Dennis Sherer can be reached at 256-740-5746 or dennis.sherer@TimesDaily.com.