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Photograph by Vincent Munier       
By Jennifer Ackerman

Symbols of luck and majesty, cranes have been called "wildness incarnate." But with wildness disappearing and their luck running out, the great birds are getting some help from scientists and self-described "craniacs."

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

From a blind overlooking the wetlands of central Wisconsin, I can see a long-legged bird in the distance, a stroke of white curled at the top, like a bright question mark against the emerald green grasses. Then up pops another from the screen of reeds. The birds are yearlings, five feet (1.5 meters) tall, with snow-white plumage and elegant black wing tips that spread like fingers when they fly. They're quiet now, but from the long trachea coiled in their breastbones may come a wild, singing whoop, harsh and thrilling, that gives their tribe its name.
This would be a primordial scene—big sky, undulations of tall marsh grasses, wild whooping cranes—were it not for a penned area nearby, where several whooper chicks, well camouflaged in tawny feathers, forage in the shallows. In a whisper, crane biologist Richard Urbanek explains that these chicks have been raised in captivity but have never heard a human voice nor seen a human form, except in crane costume. As part of an experimental program to reintroduce a wild migratory population of whooping cranes to the eastern half of North America, these chicks have been fed and tended by crane-costumed people for two months. Now, before they are released to the wild, they are being taught the habits of their ancestors with modern techniques pioneered by Operation Migration, an organization devoted to helping endangered birds learn their traditional migratory routes. Near the pen is a long stretch of open grass, a runway, where the chicks are learning to fly behind an ultralight plane flown by a pilot in crane costume who will guide them from this refuge 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) south across seven states to wintering grounds in Florida.
Two cohorts have already made such trips—and returned on their own, the first whooping cranes in perhaps more than a century to fly freely over the eastern United States. After three years of ultralight-led migrations, the new eastern migratory population numbers 36 birds, including the yearlings and the chicks. The success of this effort is leading the way for a more ambitious project half a world away in the northern reaches of Russia. In the fall of next year an international team plans to lead a flock of young captive-bred Siberian cranes along part of their traditional migratory route, from Russia to Iran, to restore the birds' knowledge of the ancient flyway—not with ultralights but with hang gliders that will soar a difficult path extending more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) over four different countries.
These human-guided migratory flights are among the most recent acts of vigorous intervention to rescue from extinction a singular creature—what conservationist Aldo Leopold called "no mere bird" but "wildness incarnate." For thousands of years cranes have been honored for their beauty, their ancient ancestry, impressive size and flight. In Africa and Europe their image appears in prehistoric art. They figure on Egyptian tombs, in Russian songs, in the totems and clans of Native Americans, in Australian dances, and Greek and Roman myths. In many parts of Asia cranes are held sacred as symbols of happiness, good luck, long life, peace. After the dropping of the bomb that people said was brighter than a thousand suns, a young girl stricken with radiation sickness set out to fold a thousand paper cranes in the hopes that she would recover. She died before reaching her goal, but other children pursued the task, and now the stone monuments of Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima are ornamented with millions of the tiny folded cranes.

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Crane Cam
Live! Watch the legendary sandhill crane migration live at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary on Nebraska's Platte River. Then learn all about these birds in this special feature.

Migrating cranes journey the world each year, capturing the hearts of humans along the way with their beauty. What is it about these animals that captures the imagination so strongly? Share your thoughts and experiences.

Q & A
Submit your crane questions to Rowe Sanctuary biologist Paul Tebbel.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, a close-up of a flamboyantly plumed crane.

Decorate your desktop with images of "wilderness incarnate."

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Teaching captive-bred birds how to be wild is not an easy task. Such is the challenge facing the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team. The process begins before the eggs even hatch. Incubating eggs are exposed to the sounds of crane calls and of engines in the ultralight planes the birds will eventually follow on their first migration. After hatching, the chicks imprint on humans dressed in crane costumes, who are careful not to allow the crane chicks to become accustomed to the human voice. These costumed researchers teach the growing chicks how to forage for food and accustom them to the ultralight. Come fall the young birds begin their first migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. An ultralight is an ideal leader as it can go slow enough for the young fliers yet can also go as fast as 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour as the cranes learn to catch thermals and save energy during the migration. In the early days of the migration the cranes will travel short distances, but as they gain strength they are able to fly longer and farther. Adult whooping cranes have been known to fly 500 miles (800 kilometers) in a day, but 200 miles (300 kilometers) is the average—about two to three times what a first-time migrator can do. Once the cranes complete their first trip to Florida, they will be able to make the return trip north in the spring and all subsequent migrations on their own. After three years of this program, there are now 36 cranes that have successfully been introduced to the wild. The goal of the program is to have 125 migrating cranes with 20 breeding pairs by 2020.
—Jennifer L. Fox
Did You Know?

Related Links
International Crane Foundation
Learn about cranes in general or about a specific species, or find out more about the only facility in the world that has on display all 15 species of cranes.
Operation Migration
Read a day-by-day diary of the ultralight-led whooping crane migration and discover more about this unique effort.
Sandhill Crane Migration
The Rowe Sanctuary is a major staging ground for sandhill cranes on their route to breeding grounds in Canada. This website offers details on cranes and suggests times to visit the Platte River to view the crane migration.


Del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, and Jordi Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, 1996.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, 1968.
National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, 4th ed. National Geographic, 2002.


NGS Resources
Johnson, Rebecca L. Tracking Animal Migrators. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Ackerman, Jennifer. "Japan's Winter Wildlife," National Geographic (January 2003), 88-113.
Defreitas, Michael. "Good Migrations." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2002), 22.
O'Gara, Geoffrey. "A Gathering of Cranes." National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1998), 134-39.
Archibald, George. "The Fading Call of the Siberian Crane." National Geographic (May 1994), 124-136.


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