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Photos courtesy of Operation Migration and WCEP

Spring Signals
Return of Whooping Cranes

Monday, March 17, 2003

By Jennifer Harrison

Last fall, Joe Duff, conservationist and ultralight pilot, led 16 juvenile whooping cranes from Wisconsin through Indiana to a remote island refuge off the western coast of Florida. During the winter at Chassahowicka Wildlife Refuge the young whooping cranes avoided predators by roosting at night in a pen. During the day they foraged for food on land and in water, says Duff.

Over the winter, eight of the juvenile whooping cranes developed adult voices. Whooping cranes acquire loud, resonant voices that can be heard for more than two miles. And each crane has a number and its own personality. Numbers are assigned sequentially when chicks hatch at a wildlife research lab in Maryland. From Maryland the numbered chicks are sent by private plane to Wisconsin. Naming the birds is forbidden. “This is science,” says Duff. “They’re wild animals, not pets.”

Yet reading the birds’ bios on Operation Migration’s web site, prepared by caretakers, a few nicknames creep into the crane matrix. But don’t tell or the offending word pairs may disappear.

Back in Florida, the 16 whooping crane youngsters stir with restlessness. Biologists believe that longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures cause a hormonal change in migratory birds. That change triggers agitation that leads to migratory flight. Several whooping cranes from the 2001 brood have left Florida already with a flock of sandhill cranes. The remaining 2001 and 2002 whooping cranes will take wing by mid-April.

Once the cranes have been led on a single migratory flight, they're able to find their way back to the general area of departure as well as the winter migratory location, says Duff. When migratory-assisted birds return north without assistance in the spring they vary from the original flyway by no more than 80 miles, researchers following the birds have learned.

If you’re lucky, you might see a migrating whooping crane next month in Indiana. The general flyway the whooping cranes are expected to use starts in Indiana at New Albany (or Louisville) and heads northwest toward Morgan County. From there it proceeds north to the Kankakee River. The flyway then follows the Kankakee River northwest into Illinois then veers north to Wisconsin.

Overhunting of wading birds in the late 18th and early 19th century, as well as dramatic losses of wetland habitats used by cranes to nest and avoid predators, led to a sharp decline in the whooping crane population. By 1941, only 22 adult whooping cranes managed to survive hunters and loss of wetlands, says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Now the population of whooping cranes has reached 400 birds including wild and captive birds, as well as migratory and non-migratory birds.

In 2001, Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership escorted a brood of five endangered whooping cranes to the same locale. This was the first-ever assisted-migration undertaken with the endangered whooping cranes. Number-five whooping crane from the 2001 brood came to roost with the 2002 arrivals this winter. The curious pairing with the younger birds earned the older crane the nickname “crane sitter.”

Joe Duff spoke last week to several hundred people gathered at Fort Harrison about the migration project. The Amos Butler Audubon Chapter organized the talk. Governor O’Bannon stopped by to express his interest in the project and told the group he too was an Audubon member and nature lover.

Formerly a photographer, Duff enjoyed watching birds as he grew up in rural Ontario. He recalls his mother mentioning to him as a youngster that she’d seen whooping cranes on Beaver River near their home. Although Duff at age 10 knew the supposed whooping cranes were actually great blue herons, he never convinced his mother.

Now 53, Duff leaves a wife and three-year-old daughter at their home near Toronto to live instead at Necedah Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin, for nearly six months a year. There he and a group of volunteers trained two broods of whoopers and led them with ultralight migrations to Florida. Before the whooping crane migrations Duff and partner Bill Lishman worked on sandhill crane and Canadian geese migrations. Lishman was the first person to fly with birds, says Duff. He and Lishman were the pilots filmed in the 1995 film Fly Away Home. Similar to stunt doubles, they portrayed Jeff Daniels in flight scenes. Duff and Lishman organized Operation Migration, a non-profit group, in 1994 to protect endangered migratory birds. They focus now on the endangered whooping crane.

Substitute parents carefully raise and train the chicks with the goal of returning the cranes to the wild. Trainers and caretakers disguise their human forms with white body sacks to ensure the birds do not grow accustomed to humans. The trainers also use crane-like puppet arms to dispense food and teach the youngsters to follow their white-draped forms. Later an ultralight airplane outfitted with a crane puppet food dispenser conditions the youngsters to follow it on the ground. The chicks are carefully exposed or imprinted on actual cranes and crane-like forms so they identify with their own species. This same-species imprinting prevents the cranes from developing tolerance of humans, says Duff. "When humans and wildlife mix, animals lose," says Duff, emphatically.

In earlier migration studies of sandhill cranes, who are related to whooping cranes and not endangered, the sandhill became overly tame from repeated exposure to people. The sandhills became so tame they landed on streets, driveways, and playgrounds during unassisted migratory flights. Such close contact with people and vehicles places the birds in great danger. Danger that is best avoided, says Duff.

The migration project uses four ultralight airplanes and a Cessna aircraft to handle air traffic concerns. Last fall Duff and numerous volunteers brought the largest group of juvenile whooping cranes ever to Florida. The group lost one crane the first day when it became disoriented by rough weather and flew into Duff's plane. The crane had to be put down. But this was the only crane lost in the 49-day trip. In the wild, whoopers typically experience a 50-percent death rate during migration, says Duff. Another juvenile crane, known to be contrary and independent, turned around and flew back to Necedah, Wisconsin, where it remained. The young birds raised at Necedah had never migrated before and depended on the ultralight pilots to guide them from their Wisconsin home.

This 1,200-mile jaunt from Wisconsin to Florida requires planned stops every 50 miles. Those sites are chosen with crane safety and human isolation as top priorities. In good weather, a two-hour flight takes them to the next stop. But poor weather in Indiana kept the whoopers, pilots, and handlers here longer than expected. It was so windy here during last year's journey the crew nicknamed us "Windiana." The trip lasted 49 days. Scientists, students, and bird enthusiasts followed the group's progress online with journal entries posted by the crew (links are at the end of this story).

In comparison, the return trip will take the whooping cranes only a few days to one week. This shortened time is because the birds soar rather than flap their wings in flight. Soaring birds find columns of warm rising air, or thermals, and effectively ride or soar upon one thermal after another. This type of flying requires little exertion by the birds. When led by an ultralight plane, the birds find a slight vacuum or slip of air created by the aircraft and soar within it. However, wind and bad weather destroy the slip that allows the birds to soar. This means the birds must flap fly, which uses a great deal of energy.

This year, Duff expects the Necedah refuge to receive 18 to 20 whooping crane chicks. Following the progress of the chicks and the migration journey makes good reading for both adults and children. Schools around the country have followed the migration projects in science classes.

Alicia Craig spoke to several hundred school children on March 7, at Marian College, about the novel migration projects. Many of the children had seen the movie Fly Away Home. Craig, an Operation Migration board member, works locally at Wild Birds Unlimited as education director. The school children also toured Marian College’s EcoLab during their visit. The EcoLab was recently adopted by the Amos Butler Audubon chapter and received a $25,000 grant to make improvements to the 30-acre wetland and garden. Those improvements include the removal of invasive, non-native honeysuckle, and restocking native plant species, says David Benson, Ph.D., head of the school’s environmental studies program.

During an interview on March 8, a restless and slightly agitated Joe Duff wanted to prepare for his evening presentation. Before taking his leave, Duff said he'd seen a flock of 50 migrating sandhill cranes over Indianapolis on March 7. Considering he’s the migration crane guy, I believed him. But don’t tell his mother.

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