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Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Five endangered whooping cranes on their first solo migratory flight found their way back to central Wisconsin, according to researchers who have been tracking birds.

Last fall, the young cranes followed an ultralight aircraft to Florida from their Wisconsin fledgling grounds at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, about 130 miles northwest of Madison.

They spent the winter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, near Tampa.

But on the return trip, the birds' instincts took over, and researchers followed during the 10-day, 1,175-mile journey. Radio collars were used to track the cranes.

"It was more than evident those birds knew what to do the whole way back," project biologist Anne Lacy said Friday.

Four of the cranes arrived at the refuge Friday evening, landing less than a half-mile from the place where they were trained to fly last summer. Lacy said the fifth crane, which split from the flock earlier this week, was expected to join the others in the next day or so.

The cranes averaged about 200 miles a day.

"We're amazed that the birds had the strength to fly so rapidly and on such a straight course back to Wisconsin," said Jim Harris of the International Crane Foundation.

Whooping cranes came perilously close to extinction, dropping to only about 21 birds in the 1940s.

Today, the North American population has grown to about 400.

Researchers hope to establish a migratory flock nesting at the Necedah refuge in the summer and wintering at the Chassahowitzka refuge in Florida.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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