Nightly News   |  January 11, 2014

Teaching the Flight of the Whooping Cranes

These hatchlings were born in captivity and reared with a robot's aid. It's all to teach them how to fly south. NBC News' Erica Hill reports.

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>>> finally tonight, a success story about a bird that once faced extinction, now flying high once again, nbc's erica hill on the return of the crane with the help of another set of wings.

>> reporter: it is not your typical bird call . but for eight young whooping cranes hatched in captivity, that sound clearly signals one thing, it is time to fly.

>> it starts out when they're still in the egg, we play a recording of the aircraft.

>> reporter: all part of the plan to create an environment that is as natural as possible for these birds who must migrate south but don't have a parent to show them the way. he uses ultralight aircraft to help these birds learn to fly .

>> we start up and down the runway with the bird. at some point, they realize they can fly.

>> reporter: once comfortable in the sky, the ultralights guide the cranes on a route from wisconsin to florida .

>> by showing them the route like their parent would, it works and they come back.

>> reporter: they don't want the birds to be comfortable around humans so they wear the white suits to hide the trace of any person underneath, and they never speak around the birds, exposing them only to the sounds of nature. and of course, to the ultralight. when the endangerment species act was signed less than 40 years ago, there were less than 15, they now number less than 100. how many of these birds were a direct result of this?

>> there are about 100 migrating between wisconsin and florida , quite substantial.

>> reporter: the population is substantial, they stress efforts to save the birds reach far beyond the crane.

>> the wet lands are critical ecosystem for people, they absorb water when we have a flood, they purify heavy metals and pollution.

>> reporter: a journey followed closely around the world, the team arrives safely in florida , true success, however, comes when these birds make their way back to wisconsin where the journey began.

>> it is exciting, you get close to this. i mean, that is proof of our work.

>> reporter: work that has truly become a labor of love. erica hill , nbc news, princeton, wisconsin .