Whooping Crane Festival Celebrates Wildlife Conservation

From September 12-14, check out the Whooping Crane Festival featured throughout the Green Lake County, hosted by Operation Migration.

Operation Migration has played an important role in saving the whooping cranes from extinction. In the 1940s, the species fell to fifteen birds, leading to its classification of an extinct species in 1967. The population of whooping cranes now reaches 500 whoopers.

David Sakrison, adjunct instructor of Business Management, a longtime supporter and member of Operation Migration’s board of directors, encourages students to attend the festival.  “The work that Operation Migration is doing is truly unique,” Sakrison says. “We teach [the chicks] to follow a light aircraft as if it were their parent, and we lead them on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida.” The chicks initially begin to clumsily fly for minutes at a time, and develop skills before the migration.

Each fall, the organization supports chicks’ first migration, a 1,200-mile journey. Some days are long.  With twenty-two stops, the migration can last anywhere from forty-eight (in 2001, their first trip) days to ninety-seven (in 2007).

Operation Migration often works with chicks who have been isolated from their families, as well as humans. Though the whoppers have a migratory instinct, they have no parents to lead them. “We assume that role. Once they have migrated south with us, they will migrate back and forth on their own,” Sakrison says.   In so doing, the birds can create new migratory flocks.

CEO and Cofounder of Operation Migration Joe Duff loves flying with the birds. “When not flying, I oversee the general migration,” he says.  “[I] speak at schools, plus deal with the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, our Board of Directors and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).”

“The goal is to create a new wild flock of whoopers in the easter U.S., where they had not been seen in more than a century,” says Sakrison. “That flock currently numbers about 85 birds.”

Sakrison wrote Chasing the Ghost Birds: Saving Swans and Cranes from Extinction after Terry Kohler, a philanthropist and conservationist, asked him to take the job. The book covers the journeys of trumpeter swans, efforts to save the dwindling Siberian crane and the impressive work to save the endangered whooping crane.

The journeys are not without challenges, and Chasing details them in an engaging narrative.  “Each year since 2001, Operation Migration has successfully led a new class of whooping cranes,” Sakrison writes.  “Weather is still the major obstacle” (Sakrison, 263).  “Tracking the birds along their migration route can be a challenge, too – trying to find and follow them along a 200-mile wide (330-km) corridor that stretches from Wisconsin to Florida” (Sakrison, 270).

After the book was published in 2007, Jack Christ, retired professor and Leadership Studies program director at Ripon College, and Sakrison produced the documentary Saving the Ghost Birds.

At the Whooping Crane festival, students can learn about these conservation efforts. The festival will host birding walks, exhibits, artists, a silent auction and presentations by internationally acclaimed experts in the field, including Raptor Rehabilitator Pat Fisher, Co-Founder of the International Crane Foundation George Archibald and Duff. Birder Tom Schultz will share his time in Costa Rica, and W-DNR Pilot Beverly Paulan will discuss her aerial experiences following wolves, whoopers and wildlife. All presentations are free and open to the public.

An exclusive behind-the-scenes tour will be hosted at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, home to rare whooping cranes. The White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, located near Princeton, is set to host a guided birding walk.

On September 12, guests can enjoy dinner at Mascoutin Golf & Country Club. University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emeritus in Conservation Stanley Temple will discuss the extinct passenger pigeon and the extinction crisis. Saturday brings a meet-and-greet with Operation Migration at a pancake breakfast and a pizza party at Christiano’s. The weekend wraps up at Mecan River Lodge on Sunday evening.

Heather Ray, Operation Migration’s director of development, says the festival will bring people from around the nation together as an, “opportunity to celebrate and educate.  Many are coming from Ontario, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and even California.”

People pay attention to the birds, Ray continues.  “They are a five-feet tall, stark white charismatic bird.  If we can safeguard the whooping crane, we also will save the critical wetland habitat it needs to survive.  Wetlands, which are home to hundreds, if not thousands of other species.”

The weekend will allow students to see the birds in the wild, join the so-called “craniacs” and explore Operation Migration’s conservation efforts.

-Kaylie Longley ’15
Saint Francis, Wisconsin

Click here for more details about the 2014 Whooping Crane Festival.

Click here for more details about Operation Migration.

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