Highly endangered Whooping Cranes stop over at Dixon Refuge

Refuge site manager Rick Seibert couldn’t believe his eyes on April 6 when he saw a group of five-foot-tall white birds standing in a farm field less than a mile from TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. “I nearly ran off the road,” he said. “There were five right there, clear as day… It was just incredible.”

The massive, long-legged, and long-necked birds were federally endangered Whooping Cranes migrating north—members of an eastern migratory population of the species that numbers just 109 individuals. An hour later, they were in the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, actively feeding in its rich restored wetlands.

Five juvenile Whooping Cranes stopped over to feed at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge on April 6. Photo by Scott Anderson/LaSalle News Tribune.

“For these extremely rare birds to find the Dixon Refuge as they’re migrating and stop there, it’s an amazing validation of the work we’ve done to bring back the habitats that were historically present,” said TWI Senior Ecologist Dr. Gary Sullivan. “It’s a big part of why we restore wetlands.”

After TWI reported the sighting to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, the coalition of agencies and organizations that coordinates the intensive recovery effort for the eastern population, we learned more exciting news: These five cranes were juveniles, part of the “class of 2015” that nonprofit Operation Migration had trained to fly behind an ultralight plane to learn the eastern migration route. Their visit to the Refuge was therefore part of these cranes’ first solo flight from their winter home in Florida back north to the nesting grounds in Wisconsin.

The birds are fitted with radio transmitters and closely tracked on migration, so Operation Migration already knew the five were spending time in Putnam County. (They’re identified with coded numbers 1-15, 6-15, 8-15, 10-15, and 11-15.) A map of their path north shows they diverted slightly west from the migration route they learned in the fall, which allowed them to find the Refuge.

The yellow place markers indicate the southward migration route stopovers for the Whooping Cranes following the ultralight plane in 2015. Red dots denote the route followed by five of the cranes on their independent return flight (a sixth bird traveled separately, indicated by the sunbursts). The blue marker is the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Image courtesy of Operation Migration.

Whooping Cranes are the tallest North American bird, as well as one of the most critically endangered. Their historic breeding range once included much of the north-central United States (including Illinois) and parts of Canada, but due to hunting and loss of wetland habitat, their numbers had dropped to just 15 wild birds by 1941. Recovery programs since then saved the species from extinction and have increased the wild flocks to a total of about 500 individuals. The ultralight plane program, an innovative strategy used for 15 years to boost the eastern migratory population, has now been discontinued because the birds were not successfully raising young, but a number of other efforts continue. 

Whooping Cranes are sensitive to human disturbance, and these individual cranes especially so. The Operation Migration crane handlers wear white costumes to mimic adult cranes and take great care to avoid habituating them to people, but because the birds were raised by humans, they haven’t yet learned some wild behaviors. Being approached by people puts them at great risk.

Given these concerns, TWI made the decision to temporarily close the interior of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge to the public while the Whooping Cranes were visiting to protect them from disturbance. By the next day, the birds had departed, but radio tracking showed they remained in north-central Illinois for a few more days. The group of five safely reached their destination in Wisconsin on April 16.

The cranes had excellent timing: Just three weeks later, TWI Executive Director Paul Botts and other staff also traveled to Wisconsin on a previously planned trip to the International Crane Foundation at the invitation of George Archibald, ICF’s founder.

“The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is unique in our heavily altered state for its size at 3,000 acres, the quality of its natural habitat, and the diversity of wetlands, prairies, and savannas it holds,” said Botts. “It’s not surprising that the cranes would be drawn to the Refuge, since so many of Illinois’ rarest species have now been found there. But it’s certainly a thrill.”

We hope they come back to visit many times in the future.

Learn the back story of the five cranes who visited in this LaSalle News-Tribune article:

Learn more about Whooping Cranes from the International Crane Foundation: https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/whooping-crane/

Read Operation Migration’s Field Journal to follow how the cranes are doing in Wisconsin: