No, whooping cranes don't need GPS units to find their way from Canada to Texas each fall.

Nonetheless, nine whooper chicks now sport high-tech bling thanks to the work of two avian scientists from The Crane Trust, a conservation organization headquartered on the Platte River near Alda.

And the project marks the first time in 22 years whooping cranes have been banded on their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories.

"It was a pretty amazing experience," said Felipe Chavez-Rameriz, director of science for the trust. "These birds have been off-limits to handling for a long time."

The global positioning system transmitters will allow biologists to track the endangered birds as they migrate up and down the continent, revealing new information about where whoopers roost, rest and, more importantly, die.

Researchers know little about the causes of premature death for a species that can live 30 years in the wild. About 80 percent of annual crane mortality occurs during the 2,500-mile spring and fall migrations.

If a transmitter bird dies along the route, researchers will be able to find it and hopefully determine what killed it. They'll also analyze stopping points for their proximity to threats, such as power lines.

Standing up to 5 feet tall, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. But with just 260 of them in the wild, they also are among the most endangered.

Despite their size and white plumage, whoopers scatter across the flyway. Biologists rely heavily on sightings by the public, but cases of mistaken identity are typical.

So the GPS transmitters will give scientists more precise information on their stopping points. But not in real time.

The transmitters mark locations for each bird every six hours and collect the locations in "data packets," which are sent every 52 hours.

Chavez-Rameriz and trust staff member Jessica Rempel led the transmitter project on Wood Buffalo National Park, an expansive, roadless area in the Northwest Territories.

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During the first week of August, the team used a helicopter to get close to the birds before capturing them on foot.

"Jumping out and chasing those birds down was really quite exhilarating," he said.

The pursuit and handling of each chick took no more than 22 minutes in an effort to reduce stress on the birds. No birds were harmed, Chavez-Rameriz said.

Although the operation went well, the team hoped to capture and outfit 20 birds. Some of the chicks, which were roughly 60 days old, proved too elusive.

The Crane Trust plans to capture and affix transmitters on additional whooping chicks in each of the next two summers, Chavez-Rameriz said.

"It's a pretty big deal for us in the crane world."

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.


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