For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane Operation Migration Update, 2009

Original Air Date: Dec. 7, 2009

Sad news on the Whooping Crane front.

Duration: 4′49″


Operation Migration Update Even during National Blue Jay Awareness Month, there are important stories about birds that don’t happen to be Blue Jays. Last week there was tragic news on the Whooping Crane front: one of the older Whooping Cranes that are part of operation Migration, female number 217, who followed the Ultralight on her first migration in 2002, died. Researchers saw her mate alone, and tracked down her carcass using her radio transmitter. Losing any crane is horrible, and losing a female is worse because right now there are far more males in the population. Losing this particular female was especially sad—she and her mate are the first, and so far the only, cranes in the Operation Migration program to successfully raise a chick to adulthood. Her body was taken to Madison, Wisconsin, for necropsy. Joe Grzybowski, a scientist who studies endangered Black-capped Vireos, has found that random factors become more and more critical when a population is very small—the goal of Operation Migration is to raise the eastern, introduced population of whooping cranes to a level where losses aren’t so critical. There have been a few other setbacks this year. The Operation Migration hangar in Necedah, Wisconsin, was horribly vandalized, with a lot of damage. While the team was in Illinois, one plane had to make an emergency landing. And on Friday, the Ultralight that provides what they call top cover, making sure that all the birds are accounted for, lost engine power. After helping with the crane flight to Kentucky, the pilot and his wife had turned to get back to their starting point in Illinois to collect their gear and bring their trailer to the Kentucky stop, but their plane lost power. They made an emergency landing in a farm field, but when they touched down at the slowest possible speed, the mud and deep standing water from recent rains sucked the nose wheel in. Their momentum carried the tail up and over the top in a slow roll. Neither person was injured even slightly, but losing this place is going to take out an important safety factor for the remainder of the migration. Migration has been slow-going for the most part this season, but they made up a little for lost time on both Friday and Saturday. Each time conditions were so perfect for flying that they skipped a stopover. As of this morning, December 7, they’re in Carroll County, Tennessee. They’re more than halfway to their two Florida stops, but still have the mountains and the bad weather associated with them to contend with. Operation Migration is one program I completely support, and give what I can at the end of each year—and this year they need support more than ever. Bad news can make the whole thing seem like a Sisyphean task, but when I go to the website and watch the flight in progress via their crane cam, or read their accounts of working with the cranes, it all seems worthwhile. This weekend, Joe Duff described Saturday’s flight on their website. He wrote: The TrikeCam had been fitted to my aircraft, and I moved the camera to give viewers an inkling of the spectacular view. It is hard to describe the beauty of these birds when the sun shines off their extended wings. They dropped a few feet below me, and I looked down at 20 birds with seven foot wing spans. There is something opulent in their brilliant white feathers, flashing black tips, and the golden remnants of their youth all cross-lit by the morning sun. Multiple layers of birds in loose formation added dimension to a view only possible from the front seat of an open aircraft flying at their speed. It was a stunning scene beyond the capacity of any camera or even words. No matter what technology we use we can not bring that image to you with even a faction of the impact it has on the eye witness. All we can do is stare in awe.

You can watch the migration as it happens, or doesn’t, each morning, and catch up with what’s happening, at