For the Birds Radio Program: Operation Migration 2009
One of my favorite autumn rituals is to head over to the Operation Migration website every morning to see what’s happening with the young Whooping Cranes that are making their first migration, following an Ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida. In recent years, the weather has presented all kinds of difficulties, and this year is sadly following the pattern, but the tenacity of both the cranes and the people leading them is inspiring, and the fact that one pair of older Whooping Cranes from this flock successfully raised a chick to adulthood and several other pairs have formed and would have succeeded in nesting if not for exceptional problems with black flies makes the prognosis excellent for ultimate success in establishing a wild, self-sustaining new flock of this critically endangered bird.
This reintroduction project depends on an interesting phenomenon. Cranes, like geese and swans, don’t have a migratory route programmed into their brains before hatching; rather, they learn their route by following their parents during their first autumn migration. They remain with their parents through the winter, too, not separating until spring hormones surge, making the parents rush north without them. The young Whooping Cranes introduced by Operation Migration were hatched in captivity, and raised not by human-looking people but by trainers wearing crane costumes and bearing an exceptionally realistic-looking and life-sized Whooping Crane head puppet. The trainer has a controller to play recordings of wild Whooping Crane vocalizations in the right contexts, too. The young cranes are imprinted on these puppet cranes, and when they begin to fly, follow a puppet-bearing costumed trainer who is flying an Ultralight aircraft. Come migration, the cranes follow the aircraft along a carefully planned route.
Wild, naturally raised Whooping Cranes migrate only when weather conditions are perfect, and can cover hundreds of miles in a single day by riding thermal air currents to keep them very high aloft. Between thermals they glide, minimizing the energy they must expend. This is such a natural behavior that the Ultralight cranes adopt it all by themselves when they make their return trip to Wisconsin the next spring, and every migration after that. But Ultralights can’t ride thermals, so on their very first migration, they must flap the whole way at a much lower altitude. The route must avoid big cities and also areas with worse than average weather patterns. The first few stops are close to one another, as the cranes build up their endurance. Arrangements must be made with landowners and the FAA well ahead of time, so there is virtually no flexibility in where the birds can stop if sudden bad weather appears. So conditions must be ideal for the birds to take off on any given morning.
This year’s migration was scheduled to start on October 10th, but poor weather delayed the cranes’ training, and the birds didn’t take off until October 16. They’ve had a lot of delays, so as of November 29, they’ve only made it to Piatt County, Illinois, just under 295 miles from their starting point and still a long way from their Florida destination. A good streak of weather may help, but from day to day we never know what will happen until it does. Fortunately, we can often see exactly what’s happening as it happens at the operationmigration.org website—they have both a field journal which is updated at least once daily AND a crane cam, so we can actually watch, in the comfort of our own home or office, that day’s takeoff. It’s addicting. Operation Migration’s dedication and the successes they’ve already had make this endangered species project extremely promising, and well-deserving of our support and interest.