Whooping cranes are among our rarest and most most beautiful birds. Through captive breeding, wetland management and an innovative program that taught young cranes how to migrate, the birds have become a testament to the tenacity and creativity of conservation biologists. ©NaturesFan, flickr

In 1942, there were fewer than 20 whooping cranes left alive in the world. Their habitats were vanishing, and they had been hunted almost to extinction. If we were to keep them from blinking out, we needed to think in new and bold ways.

With the help of science, we did. A small group of biologists, researchers and other conservation-minded people came up with a crazy plan: raise whooping cranes in captivity and then—without the luxury or benefit of having any whooping crane adults around—teach them to be wild and even how to migrate.

And it worked.

During the first few days of ultralight training, whooping cranes learn to follow the plane on the ground as it taxis up and down the runway. ©USFWS Midwest

Watch the first video below, filmed in 2012 and titled “Flight to Survive: Saving Whooping Cranes,” produced by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Then view the second video, from Assignment Earth in 2007, which is focused more specifically on a group of 18, captive-raised whooping cranes getting ready to make their first migration flight along a historic route from Wisconsin to Florida—one the species had been following for tens of thousands of years before they reached the brink of extinction.

For this special, captive-raised group of whooping cranes, however, this is the first trip they’ve ever made—and the only one where they can depend on an ultralight to guide them. During this fall trip from Wisconsin to Florida, they’ll memorize the 1,200-mile journey and have to recall it six months later when they make their way back north on their own. The motorized migration takes about two months. In spring, the whooping cranes ride thermals and soar for hundreds of miles a day, returning to Wisconsin in about a week.

Soon, the birds are following their “parent crane”—a costumed pilot in an ultralight—in the air. ©NaturesFan, flickr

Both of these videos document a bold experiment that now, unfortunately, has come to a close.

They’re good reminders, though, especially today, that when we believe in science, when we give scientists the opportunity to freely think and act, amazing and inspired conservation work can be accomplished.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,