Skip to content

Pilots teach endangered whooping cranes how to migrate

dp_090217_crane_migration_001.jpg

Young whooping cranes follow their ultralight-aircraft leader learning how to migrate. (Courtesy of Operation Migration)

dp_090217_crane_migration_002.jpg

Young whooping cranes follow their ultralight-aircraft leader learning how to migrate. (Courtesy of Operation Migration)

When Joseph Duff quit his job as a photographer to join a friend in leading migrating birds with an ultralight plane, many dismissed them with skepticism. Yet, after the two men successfully shepherded Canada geese down south in 1993, Duff knew he could deploy the same methods to save the whooping crane, one of the most endangered species on Earth.

And so it came to pass that for the past eight autumns Duff, a 59-year-old Canadian, has put on a white bird costume and hooked up an MP3 player to an amplifier that blasts the sound of brooding crane mothers. Then he leads 20 young cranes bred in captivity from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Florida, teaching them the ancient routes of migration.

These 1,250-mile flights, which can last up to 97 days depending on weather conditions, were first greeted with caution by wildlife experts. But now Duff’s work enjoys credibility among scientists worldwide. They see his effort as a rare example of man-made salvation amid the destruction of habitats and climate change.

“This idea is a strike of brilliant genius,” said Dr. Jeff Groth, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “How else would you get reintroduced cranes to migrate?”

Since the migrations began in 2001, Duff and three other pilots from Operation Migration, his nonprofit organization, have reintroduced 91 whooping cranes, helping to boost to 357 a wild population that in 1945 numbered only 15.

This is cheery news, not just for the only endangered crane variety in North America, but also for a continent where 20 common bird species have decreased by up to 82 percent over the past 40 years, and 19 other species are on the Audubon Society’s red list.

Although Duff is not a scientist and has no ornithological training, his project has caught the eye of Russian conservationists, who want to adapt it to save the even-more-threatened Siberian crane.

“I think it’s great,” said Duff, who visited Moscow and trained interns from Russia. “It’s more for the birds if we can get this to apply this to other species.”

Humans nearly caused the extinction of the whooping crane by hunting and drying out the marshes and wetlands in southern United States where the cranes bred for millions of years. Just as delicate as their habitat is the act of reintroducing birds raised in captivity to natural migration routes.

Hundreds of feet over the Appalachian Mountains, Duff wears a white costume at the controls as he carefully maintains his speed at 30 miles per hour. The birds follow the aircraft, gliding just past its wingtips, in the mistaken impression that the pilot is their mother. Duff constantly looks back at them and checks his GPS, aware that even the slightest error might ruin a year of hard work.

“It’s like the bird is fasten to the aircraft by a very thin thread,” he said. “If you go too fast, the thread breaks.”

Duff co-founded Operation Migration in Port Perry, Ontario, in 1994 with William Lishman, a sculptor and fellow Canadian amateur ultralight pilot. Their early experience with Canada geese inspired the 1996 movie “Fly Away Home.” For four years, the men did trial runs with the more common sandhill crane, until U.S. wildlife authorities allowed them to take chances with the whooping species in 1998.

The birds they have reintroduced exist alongside the only indigenous wild flock of whooping cranes left in the world, which migrates between the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas, and the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada.

The two flocks are kept separate so that they don’t spread diseases–they have different immune systems–and to avoid a mass wipeout in a cataclysm such as a hurricane.

“You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” said Jonathan Male, an aviculturist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., which breeds the juveniles cranes that Duff helps migrate to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Male and his team encourage the chicks to bond with the plane and pilot. For that to happen, they expose the chicks to the sound of the plane’s engine while they are still in the egg. After they hatch, a technician wearing a crane costume, resembling something between a burqa and a biohazard suit, acquaints the newborns with the plane by feeding them mealworms around the aircraft. The pilots wear the same outfit during the flight.

“We want to raise a bird that is afraid of people,” said Male, who is well aware that the animals might grow too comfortable around humans, relying on them for food or mistaking them as potential mating partners.

Duff, who now devotes himself to the cause of whooping cranes, confirms that the costume is crucial to fool the birds. His entire team makes sure to limit time with the chicks so that they don’t bond too tightly.

So far there have been no major hiccups, thanks to years of trials and errors with sandhill cranes. Duff’s team worked out kinks such as birds landing on golf courses and schoolyards. This required the men to review protocols many times before perfecting them in 1998.

Duff hopes it continues that way. “This is a 60 million-year-old species; they arrived shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared,” he said. “We are honored to participate in their migration.”


Young whooping cranes follow their ultralight-aircraft leader.

More on the web:
Operation Migration - http://operationmigration.org/
Operation Migration's YouTube channel - http://www.youtube.com/user/OperationMigration/

(E-mail: dp2421@columbia.edu)