Bird lovers rejoice in rescue story

Dec 28, 2009 | Toledo Blade by Tom Henry | Related Press

NECEDAH, Wis. – This is a love story, though not of the usual holiday fare. While there may be some parallels to Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, this is a tale that most closely resembles the inspirational 1996 film Fly Away Home. It’s about how the North American birding community has rallied around a sassy bird called the whooping crane, one of the largest creatures to inherit the sky. Whooping cranes also are one of the world’s rarest birds.

MIGRATION ROUTE : Led by ultralights, whooping cranes are making a 1,300-mile journey from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to two refuges in Florida.

At 5 feet tall and with a wingspan of 8 feet, whooping cranes are a sight to behold. White as snow and found only in North America, they have been on the planet for millions of years. They get their name from a whooping cry that can be heard for four miles.

“You can’t not like a whooping crane,” Canadian Joe Duff mused from the observation platform of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. “They’re a very arrogant bird and dominate the landscape.”

Mr. Duff was a consultant to Fly Away Home, a coming-of-age movie about a young girl who helps an orphaned flock of Canada geese migrate south.

Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and have a wingspan of 8 feet, and their call can be heard four miles away. The bird’s population has grown to 500 from a low of just 15 in 1941.

He’s also co-founder and chief executive officer of Operation Migration, a nonprofit that in 2001 began teaching captive-born whooping cranes how to migrate with the help of ultralight aircraft. With an annual budget of $780,000 and a crew of 12, it provides one of the most vital functions of an ongoing project supported by the U.S. and Canadian governments, plus several states, provinces, and private contributors. “Everything about [whooping cranes] is prehistoric and what you think about them is pristine,” said Oak Harbor’s Mark Shieldcastle, who for years led Ohio birding programs for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Now retired, he is the research director for Northwest Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

A turbulent past

Like a lot of things in nature, there’s no tidy finish to this story. Though there are now 500 whooping cranes, 150 are in captivity. The bird, which lives only in North America, went virtually extinct when its numbers plummeted to a mere 15 in 1941. Wetland destruction and illegal slaughter nearly did them in. Cranes in general are easy targets, being so large, but they’re also among the most sensitive to habitat loss. “In genetic terms, it was virtually extinct. I don’t know of any species that’s come back from fewer individuals,” said John French, Jr., research manager for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. Even though attempts to re-establish whooping cranes in Idaho and Florida have largely failed, the majestic bird has inspired hundreds of volunteers, landowners, biologists, and philanthropists across the United States and Canada. Plans are under way to establish a nonmigrating flock in Louisiana. Many of those volunteers spend weeks on the road during the fall and winter, away from their families for all or part of the holiday season. Kenn Kaufman, an internationally renowned birder, naturalist, and author from Oak Harbor who serves as the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s education chairman, jokingly said whooping cranes have received a level of love and devotion that “borders on insanity.”

Migration issues

Michigan and Ohio – two Great Lakes states counting on birding as a way of diversifying their economies – stand to benefit from those efforts, especially in ways that aren’t obvious to the layman, he said. The only natural population of migrating whooping cranes spends its summers in Wood Buffalo National Park between Alberta and Canada’s Northwest Territories. That flock, now a little more than 200 birds, winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas some 2,500 miles away. Whooping cranes are extremely vulnerable to severe weather, disease, petrochemical spills, and encroaching development. Many have starved to death. A lingering Texas drought has kept the Guadalupe River from being brackish enough to support blue crabs, a staple of the whooping crane diet while the birds visit the Lone Star State. “We’re expecting another big loss this winter,” said George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., the world’s largest advocacy group for cranes. So, in 1999, nine government and nongovernment groups began establishing a second flock, one made of whooping cranes raised in captivity at the government’s Patuxent facility in Maryland. The plan has been to have the birds breed enough in the wild so they can sustain that flock on their own, migrating between three of the best spots the government could find for them – the Necedah refuge in Wisconsin during summer, and either the Chassahowitzka or the St. Marks national wildlife refuges in Florida during the winter (the birds are typically divided between the latter two sites). The young must learn how to migrate. Mr. French said the idea of humans teaching them “seemed awful darned crazy” at first. But it seems to be working.

A con job

Whooping crane chicks born at Patuxent are isolated from humans from the day they hatch. Their trainers do not speak to them or converse in their presence. They approach the birds in solid white garb, the same hue as whooping crane feathers. Extreme precautions are taken because young whooping cranes are vulnerable to a phenomenon called “imprinting,” in which they follow whoever is leading them as if they were their surrogate parents. So the birds are essentially conned. Recorded brooding sounds are broadcast. Trainers use a caliperlike device that looks like a whooping crane’s head to pick up items, instead of using their hands. At Necedah, Operation Migration pilots assist with the con. They lead the birds in midair with ultralights, the same type of aircraft seen in Fly Away Home. “What that puppet head is doing is inducing them to following the ultralight,” Mr. French said.

Making the journey

A flock of 76 migrating whooping cranes has been established since the annual Wisconsin-Florida trek began. Ultralights lead a new generation of 15 to 20 young whooping cranes each year. Each bird has a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years. This year, nine additional young whoopers were mixed in with migrating birds in hopes that the adults will show their younger nonrelatives how to migrate. The goal for the Wisconsin-Florida flock is at least 125 whooping cranes, including 25 breeding pairs. Operation Migration will continue teaching birds to migrate until the flock’s population gets that large and sustains itself, Mr. Duff said. The journey typically begins in October and takes weeks. It is occasionally wrapped up before Christmas but has gone deep into January in recent years. The birds go 50 to 70 miles a day. There are 30 planned stops. Bad weather can cause several days of down time along the way, Mr. Duff said. This year, there have been setbacks that were not weather-related. On Dec. 9, one of the flock’s most valuable whooping cranes – a captive-bred bird that had given birth in the wild in 2006 – was shot down over Indiana by some apparent joy-seeker. A $7,500 reward has been offered. “It was just somebody who wanted to kill something,” Mr. Duff said. The operation recently took a brief Christmas hiatus, breaking the tradition of working through the holidays. The whoopers are in guarded pens in Alabama, under 24-hour surveillance. The team plans to reassemble today in hopes of resuming flights tomorrow, Mr. Duff said.

Hopes for this region

The direct benefit for Michigan and Ohio is hard to gauge, although Mr. Shieldcastle and Mr. Kaufman hold out hope that whooping cranes will someday be plentiful enough to be seen in this part of the Great Lakes region. They point to the successful return of sandhill cranes in southern and western Ohio – a similar, albeit tan-colored, species. “The potential for seeing [whooping cranes] in Ohio is going to vastly improve if it’s successful,” Mr. Shieldcastle said of the Wisconsin-Florida flock. The charisma of whooping cranes also makes them an ideal poster child for habitat restoration, which could improve birding along the Lake Erie shoreline, they said. The Wisconsin-Florida flock also stands out as an example of what can be done when a cross-section of experts becomes more engaged in managing wildlife. “They’re trying all of these things that hadn’t been done before,” Mr. Kaufman said of the project. “Anytime you can pioneer a new method to save a species from the brink of extinction, it’s useful information.” Jim McCormac, Ohio Ornithological Society president, said the size and personality of whooping cranes could make them invaluable for drawing attention to habitat conservation. Anything from climate change to development affects migration. “I personally think we have a moral imperative to do these things because it’s us who caused their demise in the first place,” Mr. McCormac said. “No matter where we live, it’s an inspiring story.”

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