Teaching Whooping Cranes to fly south a mission of honor
Man learned to fly studying birds. So, when some endangered birds needed to learn how to fly south, Joe Duff thought it only fitting man provide a helping hand, or a plane to lead the way.
Duff was the keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary banquet of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory held Saturday at the Catawba Island Club. He told the crowd of 150 the remarkable story of how researchers and pilots have taught Whooping Cranes how to migrate.
Duff was also celebrating a 20th anniversary. In 1993, he and William Lishman raised and led 18 Canada geese 400 miles from Lishman’s Ontario home to Virginia. Those birds returned to Lishman’s property the following spring, proving that using an ultralight aircraft could help researchers increase the chance of survival for endangered avian species.
That story was told in Columbia Pictures hit movie Fly Away Home.
The two formed Operation Migration the following year, raised funds and honed their techniques. They have since led Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes south.
The Whooping Crane is one of North America’s most endangered birds and, at five-foot tall, it is the tallest. There were only 15 birds in the wild in the early 1940s. Since then, a consortium of private and governmental agencies has succeeded in increasing the numbers to 200 to 300.
So, why does man have to teach Whooping Cranes how to fly south?
“The problem is that Whooping Cranes, like a lot of birds, learn migration routes by following their parents,” Duff said. “So, if you try to reintroduce them into the wild that parent generation is gone…There are no sign posts, no history books, no maps. It’s just one bird to the next, so it’s lost forever.”
Without migration to warmer climes, many cranes would be unlikely to survive northern winters.
Teaching a crane to follow a plane is a complicated process, Duff said.
It starts in Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Eggs from captive cranes are turned by hand three times a day while listening to the sounds of an aircraft and an adult crane. They emerge imprinted to follow the sounds. Then they are shipped by plane—in one instance a Lear Jet—to White River, Wisconsin for training.
The goal is to return the cranes to the wild so researchers are careful to assure they don’t become comfortable with the human form. All workers wear white suits covering themselves from head to toe while interacting with the cranes. When finally freed, the cranes will be afraid of humans like they should be. Flight training begins by using a Whooping Crane puppet and a plane with the wings removed to lead the fledglings around a circular track and condition them to follow the sight and sound of the aircraft.
The camouflage is also important for another reason. “When it grows up and wants to breed you want to make sure it thinks it’s a Whooping Crane,” Duff said. Some cranes had made breeding advances to Sandhill Cranes as well as humans.
When it’s time to fly south, an army of volunteers is needed. There are families who offer resting stops every 50 to 100 miles along the 1,285 mile journey from central Wisconsin to the St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges in the Florida panhandle. There are road crews who drive ahead of the plane-led flock with their trucks, trailers and suits to set up pens and assure no humans are in sight. And, there are the pilots.
The trip south usually takes two to three months. The one underway now has eight birds. The return trip in the spring, when the birds fly without man’s guidance, typically takes about eight days.
Duff was a commercial photographer before becoming enamored with the avian world. “It’s fun. You get to wear a costume. You get to fit into their society and that’s an unusual honor because that society has been running for millions of years.”
Duff has spent 20 years working with geese, swans and cranes. He welcomed the chance to deliver the keynote address for BSBO’s 20th anniversary, saying he has admired the work the organization has done in preserving habitat, researching birds and promoting its mission through the Biggest Week in American Birding.
Kim Kaufman, BSBO executive director, summarized the group’s impact on birding since its humble start in 1993 when Julie and Mark Shieldcastle opened a small office in Oak Harbor.
The group prides itself on research and education. In 20 years, it has banded 571,883 birds which Kaufman said “is a tremendous tool for bird conservation.”
BSBO has also studied hawk migration for 18 years and is completing the Ohio Winter Bird Atlas, the first such publication in the country, and is working on a Spanish language bird guide.
BSBO also founded the Ohio Young Birders Club for ages 12 to 18.
Kaufman said this year’s spring festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding, drew some 80,000 visitors to the wetlands of Northwest Ohio and had an estimated economic impact of $37 million.
All this work couldn’t be done without volunteers and Kaufman said volunteers have logged more than 120,000 hours in the past 20 years.
The organization has garnered national attention having been featured on Dirty Jobs and CBS Sunday Morning.