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Endangered Cranes Learn How to Migrate

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Endangered Cranes Learn How to Migrate

Crane chick sculpture by Operation Migration pilot Richard van Heuvelen

A group of whooping cranes is getting a lesson in migration this fall. They’re following a small flock of ultralight aircraft south. On Tuesday, they flew to LaSalle County, Illinois from a farm just west of Rockford. Chicago Public Radio’s Kristin Moo met them a few days before they took off, and she has this report.

I don’t know about you, but to me, soaring above the clouds in an ultralight airplane, a flock of magnificent birds following me to southern warmth… well, it all sounds like a glorious adventure.

FLY AWAY HOME: (PAQUIN) Stop being so dramatic!

Take this scene from the 1996 film Fly Away Home.

FLY AWAY HOME: (DANIELS) We’ve got to make 120 nautical miles by sundown. Fly across Lake Ontario. Cross an international boundary without a permit, carrying stolen goods.

In reality, it’s slow going, so far.

DUFF: It’s not going so far. That’s one of our biggest problems is we’re not making any headway.

That’s Joe Duff. He’s a pilot and photographer and one of the co-founders of Operation Migration. The group is hoping to get to Florida with 14 young whooping cranes. They were hatched in captivity this spring, so they haven’t yet learned how to migrate.

Bird handlers and pilots spend the summer training the birds to follow the ultralights: tiny planes with one propeller and a single wing like a hang glider. And then, in October, they head south from the Necedah Wildlife Refuge in Central Wisconsin.

It’s all part of an attempt to reintroduce the endangered species to the wild. To that end, the team takes extraordinary precautions to make sure the birds don’t become tame.

DUFF: We make sure that they don’t ever hear human voices, they’re never exposed to an automobile or anything human at all, except of course the aircraft. Everything that goes near their pen is camouflaged or concealed.

Handlers and pilots drape themselves in white robes anytime they get near the cranes. But when I meet Duff at the stopover near Rockford, he’s in jeans and a sweatshirt. It’s just before sunrise and the team knows they’re not going anywhere.

At this hour on a good day, the team of 10 or so pilots, bird handlers, and outreach workers would be preparing for a 50-mile flight. But the weather conditions have to be just so…with calm crisp air…and maybe a slight tailwind, if any.

This morning, the Operation Migration folks could feel the strength of the wind swaying their trailers.

MOO: Sigh

DUFF: Yeah, exactly how we feel only we add a few expletives to that long sigh.

Leaving out the expletives, Duff shows me around.

DUFF: (sound of whooping crane recording) This is a brood call. This is what the parent would give to the chick. It’s a reassuring call. They start to give this to the chick while it’s still in the egg, and so do we. On the plane we have an amplifier so the birds can hear it over and above the engine.

Duff has been leading young flocks of whoopers south for 8 years now, and the process generally works. They’ve built the Eastern Migratory Population from zero to several dozen, and the adults know the way home every spring and back every fall after making just one trip south.

But weeks into this year’s journey, they’ve only made it 184 miles. Duff describes what’s becoming an all-too-familiar sight.

DUFF: Usually it’s somewhere outside when the wind’s blowing and you’ll stand there talking about the weather. And first you know, you’ve got four or five people. We call it a crew circle, everybody’s kicking the ground. And you can actually see these things on the ground. Imprints on the frost in the grass, or where everybody’s kicked the dirt in the same pile. We call ‘em crew circles. And there’s one formed right over there.

This is the kind of day when Pilot Brooke Pennypacker might pick up a guitar.

PENNYPACKER: We’re going to call it migration. That’s going to be the name of our band. I think it’s kind of catchy, don’t you.

MOO: Well you have groupies, right? Your groupies are the whooping cranes.

PENNYPACKER: That’s true, they do follow us around, and we do play for him. You heard the contact call. Yeah, we have our own groupies, that’s true. And we have roadies. We have roadies that help set the pen up and take the pen down. It’s very much like a rock tour.

Also like a rock tour… the migration can be tough on family life.

DUFF: I’m gone 5 ½ months a year from my family. I have an 8-year-old daughter, so it’s really tough.

MOO: How does your family feel about you being gone that much?

DUFF: Well they’re not happy, you know. My wife is a true supporter, she’s fabulous. But she’s a single mom for the duration of the migration plus the summertime. And so it’s difficult for her. She’s working and it’s hard. And I miss my daughter, and it’s not, all that stuff, it’s not fun.

And all this for a bird that can be less than cooperative.

DUFF: They say that if a whooping crane can find a way to kill itself it will do it.

The birds don’t flock together naturally. They can be aggressive to each other. And their size and beauty attracts people who don’t always have their best interests at heart. Still, says Joe Duff, the mission is worth it.

DUFF: It’s fairly easy to attract the attention of the population and the media by working with a bird as beautiful and charismatic as the whooping crane. And then you add the whole concept of the ultralight, and the big adventure of migration, it’s pretty easy to draw attention. And that draws attention to all conservation and the plight of birds and allows you to educate a whole generation on how important it is to conserve. So you try to save one bird and hope that one bird might try to save everything.

It’s a big job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

FLY AWAY HOME: (News Announcer) Hey, have you heard about this kid and her birds? Commanding General Olan Hatfield says he’s never seen such an inspirational sight.

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