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Reviving species - with a puppet and planes

In bid at repopulation, costumed pilots lead whooping cranes on their old migration south.

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Gliding over Florida last week with the journey behind them, the months-old cranes were greeted as "the class of 2003."

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John Christian of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta, part of the multiagency coalition behind the project, told the crowd it was "something you'll remember the rest of your lives.... There were a lot of people who thought this couldn't be done."

Despite one 90-mile-an-hour, 200-mile leg, the trip was "long and arduous," says Joe Duff, a pilot with Operation Migration, part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. After the birds landed, Mr. Duff said he'd head to Charley Browns "to eat crab until we fall over" - and then, to bed for a good night's sleep.

Following the release of "Winged Migration," the aviary epic in theaters last spring, this year's cranes drew more attention than in years past. But a whooping crane is hard to miss: At five feet tall and with wingspans of seven feet, they're North America's largest birds.

Whooping cranes had almost died off, dwindling from about 2,000 to a few hundred after years of hunting and environmental damage. The effort to restore them to the Eastern US was launched in 1999, when Operation Migration began gathering funds and federal support for a large-scale reintroduction. Two years later, costumed pilots led a flock of eight to Florida. Last year, 16 cranes made the same trip. This year's flock numbered 17 at the start, but one crane collided with an ultralight and died.

There are now roughly 450 whooping cranes in the US, most of them wintering in Texas and spending summers in Canada. Those in Florida will fend for themselves now - with transmitters on leg bands to help scientists track them. If all goes well, they'll return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. Eventually, as they reproduce, they'll teach their children to migrate, too.

"I think there's a little bit of shame that motivates us to go back and redress what we did wrong," says David Flaspohler, an ornithologist and assistant professor of conservation biology at Michigan Technological University. "And I think we do have a moral imperative to fix some of the things we broke."

But for the crew members who spent nearly every day of the past two months with the cranes, Monday was bittersweet. Pilot Brooke Pennypacker watched the birds' emerging personalities; he particularly liked No. 303. Standing near a booth selling whooping-crane T-shirts, stuffed toys, and baseball caps, he says he worried about the birds' well-being every minute of the 54-day journey. And now, like kids trooping off to college, the birds are on their own. And so is he.

"It'll be hard to adjust now," he says, "and get back to real life."

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