NAPERVILLE, Ill. (STMW) — Endangered whooping cranes may soon be flying through the Chicago region as they migrate from Florida to their home turf in central Wisconsin.

A few of the 5-foot-tall, brilliantly white birds with black wing tips have already been reported near Whalon Lake in the far western suburbs.

“People are on the lookout for them now,” said David Willard, collection manager of the Field Museum’s bird division. “It’s certainly a magnificent bird.”

The popular birds — once on the brink of extinction — have become known as the “flagship species” for wildlife conservation efforts.

There were as few as 15 whooping cranes worldwide in the early 1940s, according to Liz Condie, spokeswoman for Operation Migration, an organization dedicated to saving the species.

“That is pretty much the closest you can get before going extinct,” Condie said.

For the last 10 years, Operation Migration has worked to restore the U.S. whooping crane population, which only has one remaining natural flock — about 270 birds that winter in Texas.

In Wisconsin, however, the conservation group has been raising chicks every year, acting as a surrogate mother. People clothed all in white maneuver a crane puppet while conditioning the baby birds and later pilot an ultralight airplane to lead the cranes on a migration path to Florida.

After winter, the flock — which now numbers just over 100 birds — heads back home to Wisconsin on their own.

During their return trip, the cranes sometimes stop in the Chicago area for a few days, said Bob Fisher, president of the Illinois Ornithological Society. In past years, “they’ve settled down in some marshes or wetlands for the night, sometimes waiting for favorable winds,” Fisher said.

If the cranes are spotted, most birders do not share specific locations until after they’ve left in order to protect them. Just last winter a total of five whooping cranes in Georgia and Alabama were shot dead, seemingly out of malice, Fisher said.

Carolyn Marsh, a Chicago Audubon Society board member, urged caution in reporting the cranes’ whereabouts.

“We don’t want people getting closer and closer,” she said. “They are not used to the human element.”

Whooping cranes are likely to be found flying among sandhill cranes, which have been passing through Chicago suburbs in large flocks.

“We love [whooping cranes] and we want them to survive. So whenever we see them, it’s a good thing,” Marsh said.

— Naperville Sun, via the Sun-Times Media Wire

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2011. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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