Illinois hunting and fishing

An Operation Migration pilot in an ultralight aircraft leads whooping cranes Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009, over the Pecatonica River Forest Preserve on their journey from Necedah, Wis., to wildlife refuges in Florida.

Whooping cranes enter Illinois

November 05, 2009 at 11:40 PM

PECATONICA — About a half dozen Natural Land Institute members watched today as 20 juvenile whooping cranes flew over their heads.

To them, members of a group that strives to preserve natural lands in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, it was a live illustration of one of their many success stories.

“It’s encouraging to know that the work we are doing is benefiting something,” said Jill Kennay of Rockford, assistant director for the National Land Institute.

The endangered whooping cranes represented the 2009 class from Operation Migration, which focuses on reintroducing the cranes into eastern North America.

The birds left Wisconsin on this morning, flying over Pecatonica at about 8:15 a.m. before landing in Winnebago.

The cranes were led by ultralight aircraft and are at the beginning stages of a 1,200-mile trek from Necedah, Wis., to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The birds were born this spring in Maryland. The conditioning for their migration begins immediately.

“Even before the chicks are hatched, they play a recording of the ultralight motor,” said Jamie Johannsen, an Operation Migration board member. “When they are hatched, they do a health check and they have to teach them to eat.”

NLI members pride themselves on preserving habitats for the birds.

“We protect the habitat for these birds and all the other birds and animals that use this part of northern Illinois,” NLI staffer Sue Merchant said. “The birds are just absolutely incredible. Saving the habitat for them means the habitat will be saved for so many others.”

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild.

“We are succeeding,” Johannsen said.

David and Sara Jones of Pecatonica were among a few others who just wanted to see the birds fly over.

“We have been following this project for quite a while,” Sara Jones said. “We aren’t deeply into birds, but we’re deeply into preservation.”

Weather permitting, the birds will fly over LaSalle County on Friday. For more information and progress of the birds, go to