Ultralight-Aircraft Pilots Teach Refuge-Reared Cranes to Migrate

By Geracimos, Ann | The World and I, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Ultralight-Aircraft Pilots Teach Refuge-Reared Cranes to Migrate


Geracimos, Ann, The World and I


Ann Geracimos is a writer with The Washington Times.

It's easy enough to fall in love with a whooping crane. Just don't try to kiss one. No matter how enamored they become, humans aren't supposed to get close to the breed--at least when humans are without disguise and appear to the birds in recognizable form. A young chick can bond with a mammal and forget how to fly.

The tallest bird native to North America, the crane has a 5-foot wing span, a long, flexible neck, and a sharp beak that can peck out an eye. It also is one of the rarest birds around. The effort to keep the species alive has brought numerous people and organizations together through the years--mainly wildlife specialists who admit a fascination with the creature that borders on a kind of passion.

Pilot-photographer Joe Duff, CEO of the Canadian-based nonprofit Operation Migration, says he is drawn to the crane because it is so tenacious. "It came back from only 15 birds in 1942 and made it back again against all the odds," he says. Fewer than 400 whooping cranes are alive today, he says.

Operation Migration was established 10 years ago to develop methods for teaching captive-reared birds to learn migration routes by following specially designed ultralight aircraft. Currently, Duff is one of three pilots leading 14 young birds on a laborious journey from their summer home at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to winter range at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The route was selected by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, an international group of American and Canadians whose task is to preserve the birds. Using the Wisconsin-to-Florida route, the team was able to avoid other paths used by wild cranes.

All but one of the 14 cranes making the trip were bred and trained at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, in a program operated by the U.S. Geological Survey under the direction of Research Manager John French. (The research center is one of several hundred refuges belonging to the National Wildlife Refuge System in the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.)

To date, Patuxent has produced two-thirds of all the whooping cranes released in the wild. Pilots and birds left Necedah on October 10 and were expected to reach Florida sometime in late November. They fly low-- between 100 and 1,000 feet--and spend only one to three hours in the air, stopping at prearranged sites each day. (Daily updates are given on www.operationmigration.org.) When birds are older and their wings are stronger, they can go longer distances, sometimes gliding along on wind currents.

"The really impressive thing to me about the ultralight is we teach them to migrate using a pattern that is totally different from a naturally migrating pattern," French says. "In a natural situation, a chick flies with two adults." With the ultralight, the young birds must use their wings the whole time, whereas grown birds on their own can stay up for eight to 12 hours at a time at a much higher level to take advantage of winds known as thermals.

This is the fourth year for the flight, undertaken in order to imprint young birds with a knowledge of the route. Almost miraculously, so far each group has found its way back unassisted to their summer home. The cranes then are older, but French says he still finds it hard to believe they can make the return using patterns that involve a whole different navigation system. …

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