Thursday, August 19, 2010

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Friday, August 13, 2010


On Saturday, July 31, 2010, Prairie Woods Audubon board members were treated to a “behind the scenes” look at the Whooping Cranes being trained to follow the ultra-light aircraft at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Necedah, Wisconsin. This training is to prepare them for the young Whoopers’ first migration to Florida in the fall. Each group of birds at Necedah are called “cohorts”. Each cohort is comprised of birds of different ages, so as to be able to train each group in stages accordingly. Board members saw Cohort One, which is up to its full compliment of eight birds, and is the oldest group on site. David Johnson, Operation Migration board member, and Joe Duff, Operation Migration Co-founder and C.E.O. (and pilot) were our hosts.

Joe Duff joined Bill Lishman in 1993 and helped him conduct the first human-led bird migration. The two "artists turned naturalists" used two ultralight aircraft to lead 18 Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. The success of this initial study led to the founding of Operation Migration the following year, and the making of "Fly Away Home" in 1995. For the film, Duff trained the "actor geese" to follow the aircraft, and worked closely with the production crew; even contributing some of the footage. In the same year Joe led Sandhill cranes in flights around southern Ontario, as well as leading 60 geese to South Carolina with Lishman and the OM crew. Joe heads the team that conducts ongoing fieldwork and annually leads a new generation of Whooping cranes on their1200+ mile migration from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

The first time you experience the “performance” of the young Whoopers following an ultra-light, you get the feeling that you are in the presence of something very special….not to mention feeling quite privileged that you are one of only a few individuals who has witnessed this momentous, quite unique process. Even for those who don’t follow every move of the Whooping Crane “initiation” process every year (courtesy of the daily notes posted on the “In The Field” page found at, the experience of watching this process was found to be almost spiritual. Also in the presence of the young chicks was an older Whooper from the 2005 flock that has been hanging out with them. It apparently decided that it was going to take advantage of the handouts that were being given to the chicks during training; well, hey, why should it have to forage on its own when there’s free food to be had? One smart bird.

Efforts to establish a non-migratory Whooping crane flock began in Florida in 1993, using cranes hatched in captivity. In September, 1999, after searching for the best possible location to establish a second migratory flock, it was recommended that the flock be taught a migration route with central Wisconsin as the northern terminus and the west coast of Florida as the new wintering location. Operation Migration's ultralight-led migration technique is the main reintroduction method. Today, over 40 Whooping cranes are migrating in eastern North America brought about by the efforts of Operation Migration and their partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) numbered 97 Whooping Cranes at the end of the July 24th reporting period. This number breaks down into 52 males, 45 females and 2 wild-hatched chicks.

A recent posting by Joe Duff makes one realize that the Operation Migration folks themselves, who work so intensely with these cranes, don’t take their experience for granted and still have a soft spot for these guys even after ten years.
Date: July 20, 2010
Reporter: Joe Duff
Location: Necedah NWR

Maybe if we were working with snails or trying to reintroduce an endangered cactus it would be easier to maintain the proper scientific aloofness. If it were anything less regal than a Whooping crane, it would be simpler to stay emotionally detached. As it is, we use numbers instead of names and minimize the amount of time we spend with them but it is still hard to remain impartial. We keep our distance so they can be wild creatures but it is not easy.

When they get older and after they have been on their own for a while, they tend to be a little more aggressive. Each encounter starts with a little posturing. But when they are young and covered in fluff, more legs and feet than body, they are just too hard to resist. When they run behind you in unquestioning loyalty with wing outstretched for a purpose they have yet to comprehend, they are just too damned cute.
Operation Migration relies solely on donations from individuals and other organizations to continue their work. Please visit for more information on how you can contribute to this very worthy cause.