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Whooping cranes migrate to Florida with aircraft assistance

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As winter approaches, Florida is expecting an influx of “snowbirds” or people who head south during the colder months. In addition to these people, real birds are also making the trip down to the Sunshine State.

Whooping crane
Whooping cranes learn to migrate from ultralight planes.

Ultralight aircraft led five whooping cranes from Wisconsin to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County. The cranes started their journey in early September and arrived Tuesday.

David Lopez, a whooping crane biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the ultralight planes teach the cranes how to migrate because they are not able to do so on their own.

“They view this ultralight plane, which is basically a hang glider with an engine on it, as their parent,” Lopez said. “They learn to follow it around at a very early age, and once they can fly they learn to fly behind it.”

This year only five birds made the journey, a smaller number than usual.

Abandonment issues and low breeding are being investigated through experiments as reasons for the smaller number, according to Lopez. Black flies may be a contributing factor because they are known to bite the whooping cranes, which causes them to leave their nests.

This is the 12th group guided by ultralight aircraft to the Gulf Coast, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

The partnership said about 450 whooping cranes live in the wild. About 115 reside in the eastern part of North America.

Cassandra Vangellow wrote this story for online. 

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.

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