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Taking Flight

By Allison Sawyer

The roar of the ultralight plane’s engine signaled the birds’ arrival. The small group of people who had braved the frigid October morning and risen before dawn to watch the whooping crane migration stared at the sky in silent reverence, open-mouthed as they passed overhead. The sound of the loud, distinctive call that inspired the birds’ name blared from the plane’s speakers, encouraging the whooping cranes to follow. No one spoke until long after the crane-costumed pilots and the black-tipped wings of their flock had disappeared from view. A woman watching the migration for the first time eventually broke the silence. “We need things like this to take the rough spots off of our souls,” she said quietly, tears streaming down her cheeks.

ultralight plane
Courtesy of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
An ultralight plane leads a flock of whooping
cranes from Wisconsin to Florida for the winter.

The grace and ease with which the seemingly odd group of humans and cranes had taken flight together belied the extensive preparation and efforts that the organizations in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) had coordinated to make it happen. Canadian non-profit organization Operation Migration supplied the tiny ultralight planes, while the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland provided most of the cranes. The International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo sent scientists and veterinarians on the trip to monitor the birds during and after their journey. Other members of the partnership agreed to lend their support at rest stops the migration team would make about every 50 miles along their 1,218-mile trek from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

While onlookers at that morning’s Green County stop marveled at the poignancy of the scene they had witnessed, members of the WCEP bustled around the property and prepared to follow the cranes on the ground to the next stop along their route. Emblazoned on the side of several WCEP trucks, the words “Fewer than 500 whooping cranes remain between survival and extinction” reminded everyone of the leaps that have been made in the preservation of one of the world’s oldest and rarest species of birds as well as the work that still needs to be done to ensure their long-term survival.

Revived from the brink of extinction, the whooping cranes have made an impressive comeback since their North American total hit an all-time low of 21 in 1941. Thanks to the work of the WCEP’s reintroduction project, 452 of the birds now live in wild or captive populations, but those numbers are not enough to ensure the continuation of the species. Several groups, including ICF, founded the WCEP in 1999 to achieve the goals of a 1994 Whooping Crane Recovery Plan. The plan aims to downgrade whooping cranes from endangered to threatened by maintaining at least 40 nesting pairs in the last existing flock of migrating whooping cranes and creating two additional wild flocks with at least 25 breeding pairs each.

ICF education outreach coordinator Joan Garland says the three flocks would mimic the historical distribution of whooping cranes before they became so rare. She says having several flocks would also prevent the entire species from being wiped out in an accident such as an oil spill or forest fire. WCEP led the first class of whooping cranes slated to become part of a new migratory flock south for the winter in 2001 and hopes to reach its goal of having 125 whooping cranes in Wisconsin by 2020, including 25 nesting pairs.

crane costume
Courtesy of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

A bird caretaker wears a crane costume to disguise his human features so the birds maintain the natural fear of people they need to survive in the wild.

A pioneer in the preservation of cranes and home to the world’s only collection of all 15 species, ICF works with WCEP partners to prepare each year’s new class of birds for migration and reintroduction to the wild. The chicks are raised at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, which begins taking careful measures before the cranes have even hatched to ensure they will know how to follow the ultralight on their first migration and eventually be able to survive in the wild. ICF spokeswoman Kate Fitzwilliams says the cranes hear recordings of an ultralight engine when they are still inside their eggs to prevent them from being afraid of the planes and are isolated from humans so they maintain their natural fear of them. Whenever they approach the cranes, caretakers of the birds wear crane costumes that disguise the human form and voice.

ICF curator of birds Mike Putnam says the highly impressionable whooping cranes have trouble identifying with the correct species if they are raised by people or other types of cranes. “We don’t know if they see themselves as humans or us as cranes, but hand-raised whooping cranes regard people as conspecific [members of the same species],” Putnam says. “They are more territorial and aggressive toward humans than cranes who haven’t been directly exposed to people.”

A 1975 experiment conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service inadvertently demonstrated the tendency of whooping cranes to embrace the species of their “parents” as their own. The “Gray’s Lake Experiment” attempted to determine whether having sandhill cranes raise the whooping cranes would be an effective way to keep the whooping cranes wild. It wasn’t a bad idea, considering the tendency of cranes to be excellent parents, but when the whooping cranes began to seek out a mate, the sandhills wanted nothing to do with them.

The most famous example of cranes’ tendency to “imprint” upon the species that parents them is the relationship between ICF co-founder George Archibald and a female whooping crane named Tex, who had imprinted on people. Archibald “courted” Tex, who lived with him. Fitzwilliams says Tex was reportedly very territorial around Archibald and not at all fond of his “other” wife, a human female. Ironically, Tex was killed by a racoon on the day Archibald went on Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show" to discuss their legendary romance in 1982.

Putnam says that another method for preventing such infatuations between the cranes and their human caretakers is to have adult whooping cranes raise some members of their next generation on their own.

“Sometimes we give pairs of whooping cranes a dummy egg to incubate and, if they’re doing a good job, we’ll give them a hatching egg and let them raise it,” he says. “We might give them a sandhill crane first because they’re heartier, and if something goes wrong we’d rather not lose a whooper.” Maintaining the fragile population of whooping cranes is an important task that often requires the public’s help in addition to the work of scientists and organizations like ICF.
Garland says the foundation tries to focus on informing people and including them in the ultralight migrations. “With the [WCEP] partnership, the media was very involved in getting the word out the first year because it was a very new idea,” Garland says. “In subsequent years, we have really tried to focus on educating people about what we’re doing because we really need their cooperation for the migrations to go smoothly.”

Since its inception 30 years ago, the ICF has prided itself on including the community and making sure its efforts to save the iconic cranes are also beneficial to the people who share their wetland habitats. “Wetlands for thousands of years have been centers of human activity,” ICF President Jim Harris says. “Places cranes have survived have had a lot of human use, and it’s unrealistic that people would just leave because they depend on [wetlands] in many places.”

UW-Madison botany professor and wetlands expert Joy Zedler agrees that preserving the cranes’ habitats benefits humans in many ways. “Wetlands are critical for keeping your drinking water clean, for reducing the risk of flooding and for supporting the biodiversity that people enjoy, use for recreation, and draw upon for food, fiber and, potentially, medicines,” Zedler says. Harris says many people active in conservation have recognized the importance of working with and helping people while protecting the environment, and ICF has tested this practice around the world.

The foundation has put its philosophy to work in Caohai, China, where it teamed up with a New York charity to offer loans to local residents in exchange for their help in creating local businesses that are less damaging to the wetland home of cranes living nearby. In the Amur River Basin, shared by Russia, China and Mongolia, ICF is helping to establish three adjacent crane and wetland reserves that will be administered by the three countries together. The group acknowledges that in heavily populated areas such as China, people play an integral role in the ecosystem and need to be involved in efforts to preserve it.

two cranes
Courtesy of Anne Kubena
Two cranes stroll around the grounds of ICF. The foundation works hard to keep predators off its property so the cranes can live in peace.

Fitzwilliams says ICF works hard to build good relationships with the cranes’ neighbors in the U.S. as well. In Briggsville, for example, ICF and local farmers cooperate to protect both sandhill cranes and the crops they have a tendency to destroy. “Our Field Ecology staff really needed to build good relationships with farmers that were having problems with cranes and crops so they could start to solve those problems,” Fitzwilliams says. “Our staff could never have had 10 years of good data on these birds if it weren’t for cooperative farmers. And there are many alternatives to hunting that will solve crop damage that farmers are now open to.”

While ICF relies heavily on the cooperation of the public, it also counts on the public’s generosity to fund its projects. The whooping crane reintroduction project alone costs WCEP around $1.8 million per year, and ICF’s yearly expenses total $2 million, most of which comes from donations, grants, gift shop sales and admissions fees. Harris says there are many reasons why the organization’s projects are worth their price tags. “Cranes serve as ambassadors for the places they live. When you protect them and their habitats, you also preserve many other creatures who share those wetlands but wouldn’t normally get any attention,” Harris says. He also says cranes should be saved from extinction because they are a world treasure, honored by many cultures around the globe for millions of years.

In its 30 years of crusading for cranes, ICF has been able to impart its knowledge to people far beyond its Baraboo headquarters. The foundation’s tireless efforts to involve community members in both its domestic and international projects have helped spread the word about the plight of endangered species of cranes and ensured that the birds with the long past will enjoy a long future.

To learn more about whooping cranes and crane organizations visit these sites:

The International Crane Foundation: Visit this Web site for updates and details about the foundation’s projects.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership: Visit this Web site for more information on the whooping crane reintroduction project.

Operation Migration: Visit this Web site for daily updates on the whooping crane migration and for information on the ultralight planes.

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