Folks who happened to be scanning the skies in central Wisconsin yesterday were witness to a strange sight, as people in bird costumes flying ultra-light aircraft led a flock of nine whooping cranes on the first leg of a 1,250-mile migration. The flight was part of an experiment to teach the extremely rare birds to migrate from the state’s Necedah Wildlife Preserve to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A similar experiment conducted last year with sandhill cranes was successful, with the birds returning from Florida to Wisconsin on their own this spring. Whooping cranes, which stand five feet tall and can fly 35 miles per hour, were nearly driven extinct by hunting and habitat loss. Thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have risen from just 15 in 1940 to around 400 today.

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