CHASSAHOWITZKA — What one whooping crane expert called "likely the most important bird in the entire Eastern migratory population" was shot to death during its recent flight from Wisconsin to Florida .
The female whooping crane was part of the so-called First Family of cranes taught the migration route by flying behind an ultralight. It was the matriarch of the family, and the only female crane to have hatched and raised with her mate a wild whooping crane chick in the nine years of the migration program.
"We are all saddened by the loss and troubled by the motive behind the act," Operation Migration chief executive Joe Duff said on the organization's Web site.
The 7-year-old female crane was shot between Nov. 28, when it was last seen by staffers from the International Crane Foundation, and Dec. 1, when a volunteer with that organization found the carcass in Vermillion County, Ind., near the Indiana-Illinois border. Whooping cranes can live 25 or more years.
The news was the latest blow to the staff and volunteers of Operation Migration, which each year uses ultralight aircraft to teach young whooping cranes the migration route. The organization has endured two major aircraft problems this fall and $20,000 in vandalism and theft at its storage hangar in Wisconsin.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a minimum $2,500 reward for information leading to a conviction in the death of the bird. The penalty could be a fine of up to $25,000 and up to six months in prison.
Dubbed 217, the crane that was shot and her mate, 211, were migrating to Florida for the winter. They had been a part of the 2002 ultralight-led migration. In 2006, the pair produced two chicks, but only one survived.
That whooping crane, known as Wild 601, is still among the 86 cranes that make up the Eastern migratory population and is the only wild whooping crane in more than a century to hatch and survive in the eastern United States. Others are hatched and raised in captivity, then taught to fly behind the ultralight aircraft at whatever altitude the pilots determine has the smoothest air.
The news about crane 217 came in the middle of this year's effort to lead the 20 young whooping cranes born in 2009 from Wisconsin to Florida — half to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the Citrus-Hernando county border and the others to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle. Once the birds learn the migration route, they return to Wisconsin unassisted in the spring.
Traveling now for 56 days, the Class of 2009 is in Carroll County, Tenn., where it has been grounded by weather for the past five days. The ultralights and whooping cranes are 578 miles into the more than 1,200-mile annual odyssey.
The weather is usually the biggest challenge for the team, but other issues have plagued this year's migration.
In mid November, when the team was attempting to lead the birds out of Winnebago County, Ill., the engine in pilot Chris Gullikson's ultralight failed. He had to land in a field. He was not injured, and his ultralight was not damaged.
During Thanksgiving week, the team learned that the hangar where it stores equipment near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin had been broken into and vandalized. A steel sculpture of a whooping crane by ultralight pilot Richard Van Heuvelen was destroyed, and spare training wings for the aircraft were slashed and bent. One of the original ultralight trikes — identical to one on display at the Smithsonian and both of which were used in the movie Fly Away Home — was badly damaged.
Then, just last week, volunteer pilots Don and Paula Lounsbury, who fly a Cessna 1,000 feet above the ultralights and cranes, had their plane ice up, forcing them into an emergency landing in a field in southern Illinois. The plane, which flipped over when it hit the ground, was a total loss. The couple, who have volunteered since the beginning of the project, received only minor injuries.
Operation Migration is familiar with the pitfalls of trying to re-establish a population of endangered whooping cranes, North America's tallest bird. But spokeswoman Liz Condie said this year's events have been troubling.
Still, she said everyone is grateful that no one has been hurt.
"This year we get up every day and we think, wonder what's up for us today,'' Condie said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.