11/08/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

The Flight to Survive

The "Sensational Six," a flock of six young whooping cranes, is flying south toward Florida's sunny skies. The cranes have no idea how close they came to never being born at all. A generation ago, their species teetered on the brink of extinction.

Over-hunting and habitat destruction decimated the whooping crane population, and in the early 1940s less than 20 birds remained. Canadian and U.S. rescue efforts saw moderate success, but without wild adult cranes to show the chicks how to migrate, the species didn't stand much of a chance.

Enter the Men in White Suits.

The plan (called crazy by many) was to raise chicks in captivity, teach them to fend for themselves, and then guide them by ultralight aircraft along their ancestors' traditional migratory routes. To ensure the impressionable chicks remain wild, their handlers disguise themselves in baggy white suits that make them look like an asbestos removal team. Or maybe marshmallow men.

Either way, the goofy-looking white suits seem to be working. And so does the so-called crazy plan. Today there are over 500 whooping cranes across North America.

It all starts in breeding centers around the United States and Canada, where captive whooping cranes do that spectacular mating dance they're famous for. The eggs are sent to Patuxent Wildlife Center in Laurel, Maryland, sometimes via commercial airline flights. (You never know what might be spinning around on those baggage claim carousels.) The white-suited biologists at Patuxent adhere to a strict no-talking policy around the baby cranes. They play ultralight aircraft sounds to the eggs to kick-start the imprinting process, and they use a crane puppet to teach the chicks to forage for food. After six to seven weeks, they ship the young cranes up to Wisconsin for flight training. The cranes need a bit of practice time taxiing up and down runway, and then they take to the skies, trailing behind the ultralight.

The first flock of ultralight-led whooping cranes migrated successfully back in 2001. Now the Class of 2012 is en route south, currently somewhere over southern Illinois. The migration across seven states and 1,200 miles would take a flock of wild birds only about a week on their own. But the ultralights are much more dependent on weather conditions, so the trip south for this little flock could take as long as three months. But once they make it to Florida, the cranes will remember the migration route and be able to return north on their own in the spring and lead their own offspring south next winter.

Those who happen to live along the migration route between Wisconsin and Florida might be able to catch sight of the majestic birds from one of the flyover viewing locations. The rest of us will have to settle for tracking their progress online.

Watch the four-minute documentary at