Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Wildlife Medical Center Helps Restore Whooping Crane Population

Pet Column for the week of March 3, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

How do you work with a flock of birds without letting them see you or hear you?

That's one of the challenges tackled by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a group that is trying to reintroduce a migratory flock of this endangered species into its natural habitat, which spans the country from Wisconsin to Florida.

The handlers who raise these birds from hatchlings have overcome this challenge by inventing an ingenious way of using hand puppets and costumes to raise the birds in as natural a setting as possible. The baby whooping cranes are also conditioned to follow an ultralight aircraft, initially on the ground and then in flight, so they can learn the migratory path.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana is playing a role in this important conservation project. It has agreed to serve as a designated veterinary center with expertise in avian wildlife medicine along the migratory flight path.

"If a crane needs medical attention during the migration, then the nearest designated facility will become involved in the project," says Dr. Julia Whittington, the director of the Wildlife Medical Clinic. In order to provide medical treatment to a whooping crane in this program, volunteers at the Clinic will have to follow the protocols that require protecting the cranes from any human contact, either visual or auditory.

"There is evidence to suggest that a crane requiring medical treatment could be re-released into the flock after treatment," says Dr. Whittington. "One of the cranes in the first flock fell behind during migration and could not keep up with the rest of the flock. This bird was picked up and driven to the migration site. The following spring, this bird successfully migrated back to Wisconsin with the rest of the flock. Even though he did not fly down to Florida the flock was able to teach him to migrate back to Wisconsin in the spring."

So far the program has been extremely successful. In 2001 the first group of eight whooping cranes followed the ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida; the following year five surviving cranes migrated back to Wisconsin without human assistance.

"Teaching the cranes the migratory path in the fall took 50 days, but the cranes made it back to Wisconsin the following spring in only 8 days," notes Dr. Whittington.

In 2002, a new group of 17 whooping cranes was raised and guided to Florida. The project will continue for 5 years, with a goal of 25 mating pairs of migratory whooping cranes.

The University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic is striving not only to provide medical treatment for wildlife and education for students but also to take an active role in environmental and ecological issues.

"In assisting the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, we are doing our part to preserve the rich biological diversity of our country and to preserve its natural ecology," says Dr. Whittington.

If you have any questions about the Wildlife Medical Clinic, call (217) 244-1195 or visit its Web site at