For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane update
Why does it take cranes so much longer to follow an Ultralight to Florida in fall than to make the return trip in spring?
I’m writing this on November 20, the day sixteen Whooping Cranes following an Ultralight airplane crossed the Tennessee border and the half-way point of their journey from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. They flew 74.9 miles on today’s trip, their longest journey yet. When these birds started migrating from Wisconsin last month, their flock usually broke up after a few miles even though they were covering only about 30 miles a day. A back-up Ultralight plane had to bring in many of them, and often some birds dropped down and had to be transported by truck for the rest of that day’s trip. Now the birds are more experienced and stronger, and can cover bigger distances easily. Today all 16 stayed together for almost the entire flight. One bird seemed to be tiring near the end, and that one ended up following the back-up plane to the destination, but all of them made the longest leg of the trip so far on their own power.
These birds have taken over a month to travel 652 miles. What’s taking so long? They can’t fly if it’s raining or if there are strong winds, or even weak headwinds. They spent five days at one spot in Kentucky, and were stuck at a spot in Indiana for five days too, because of uncooperative weather. But now on the days they do fly, they’re making great progress.
Meanwhile, some of the birds that had followed the Ultralight last year or the year before are starting to turn up in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on their own. That’s the wonderful thing about this human-led migration. Wild cranes learn their migration route from their parents their first autumn. The next spring, after staying with their babies for almost an entire year, parent cranes suddenly abandon them, and the young birds make the return migration north on their own. And that’s exactly what’s happening with these airplane-led birds. They need humans to guide them their first fall, but after that they remember where to head in spring on their own, and find their way south again entirely on their own. After this year’s additional 16 birds, the cranes introduced to Wisconsin that migrate to Florida totals 36 birds. The project will continue for another two or three years, after which the population may well be high enough to be self-sustaining. A few years from now the first pairs should be starting to lay eggs. The permanent Florida population that had been introduced in the Kissimmee area starting in 1993 now numbers 95 birds, almost all of which had been raised in captivity and released there. Now this flock is finally beginning to reproduce. One pair raised twins last year. A Bald Eagle killed one of the chicks, but when the eagle returned to take the second baby, the parent cranes went ballistic and battered the eagle so badly it was picked up by rehabbers. The surviving chick, Lucky, is still alive today, and that pair and another pair successfully raised babies again this year. So three of the 95 birds in the Kissimmee flock are wild-born chicks now. With luck, this small flock will eventually be entirely self-sustaining.
So now there are two introduced Florida Whooping Crane flocks—the permanent residents around Kissimmee and the migrants following the Ultralight. And of course there is the truly wild population that moves between Wood Buffalo National Park and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This flock is also starting to arrive on its wintering grounds now. One of the adult cranes was shot and killed by a poacher last week. But the wild birds fortunately had a great breeding season this year, and may have actually reached the 200-mark for the first time since the 1800s, though the actual numbers won’t be known for sure until aerial surveys are done when all the birds have arrived in December.
There will be at least 318 Whooping Cranes in Texas and Florida this winter—the most ever since people started paying attention instead of slaughtering them in the 18th and 19th centuries. And there are 134 Whooping Cranes in captivity in zoos and research facilities, birds that are producing the eggs that will continue to augment the wild population as needed. Some bird species are declining right now, but one bird that had been on the edge of extinction during my lifetime is making a dramatic comeback thanks to people who care.