MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - If you glanced into the Alabama sky Wednesday and thought you saw an ultralight aircraft being followed by five huge birds, it wasn't a mirage. Those birds were Whooping Cranes, one of the nation's most endangered bird species, and they were following what they have been taught to think of as "mama".
The entourage is part of Operation Migration, a project designed to reintroduce the endangered Whooping Crane to the wild by teaching it to migrate, a learned behavior.
The young birds are taught to recognize keepers and their ultralights as parental figures -- even to the point of being exposed to aircraft motor noises while still in the egg. To keep the birds from imprinting on humans, handlers and pilots wear featureless white suits while with the birds.
The group left the Hayneville area just after daybreak Wednesday morning and reached its next stop in Pike County by midday, covering 51 miles.
[SLIDESHOW: Rare Whooping Cranes over Alabama]
Five "whoopers" were following the lead aircraft Wednesday. Six birds are usually in the group, but one was uncooperative Wednesday morning and had to be crated and driven to the next stop. Another ultralight follows the group in case one of the birds grows tired and lands.
The birds leave the Wisconsin training site in late September heading for their ultimate destination -- the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The trip takes so long because the high winds and poor weather ground the ultralight aircraft on many days.
A Whooping Crane -- the largest bird in the United States -- grows to five feet tall and has a wingspan of more than seven feet.
In the 1940s, there were only 15 to 20 Whooping Cranes still alive in the wild. The population has rebounded to about 500 birds, but it remains one of the most threatened in the United States.