Whooping Cranes To Live at Wheeler: A Distinct Possibility

by Steve Wiggins

Whooping Crane Ultralight

WINSTON COUNTY, ALABAMA – When it comes to the notion of following a ultralight aircraft down to Florida, nine of the world’s rarest birds aren’t feeling it any more. Now that the birds are no longer cooperating, the dedicated crew that has been supporting the young Whooping cranes is trying to figure out what to do instead. The Quad-Cities Daily has, in a series of reports, chronicled the struggle of Operation Migration since it’s founder Joe Duff and crew have been stuck in Russellville since December 11.

Grounded due to bad weather, the Christmas holidays, and a temporary hold on their operations by the FAA, the Whooping cranes were stuck on the ground for nearly seven weeks. Weeks Six and Seven saw attempts by Duff and Company to roust the flock back into the air to continue their southward journey, but to no avail.

Joe Duff

” They’ve been stuck on the ground for weeks. We don’t know what triggers the migration instinct, or what turns it off,” Duff said, “but nature is in charge here, and the cranes are simply not interested in following us anymore.” He said that the imprint of the ultralight lead aircraft leaves them after a time. “It’s part of the maturing process,” Duff explained, “they do not feel like following their parents any more. They want to decide things for themselves more and more as they mature.” Duff doesn’t know whether the cranes are ready to move northward to their summering grounds back in Wisconsin, where they were born, or if they simply want to stay back up in Franklin County where they have spent most of the winter.

Whooping Crane Chick

This week the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is meeting to discuss the  efforts. WCEP is an amalgamation of organizations that organize efforts in Canada and America to grow the flock and reestablish an eastern migratory route. Duff, will be attending the conference via telephone. The group will try to come up with a solid plan of what to do next, now that the migration effort is stalled. “We will hear from experts and give our feedback of this year’s efforts. They may decide to crate the cranes and truck them to St. Marks Island (in Florida), “Duff said. “Or some, or all of the birds could be introduced to Wheeler (National Wildlife Refuge). the problem with Wheeler, is that we can’t execute a gentle release into the wild there.

Duff explained that flying Whooping cranes from Wisconsin down to the two sites in Florida is only a relatively small portion of the program. “When the birds get to Florida, we stay with them throughout their time there until the northward migration begins. Every morning, we release the young birds from their pen and let them mingle with the mature cranes”. Duff said that there are now about 100 birds migrating back and forth on their own. These are the birds that the young cranes learn to accept as flock members, and fly their migration with. “Every night, we call our cranes back to their pen and close them up for safety,’ Duff continued, “This is what we call a gently release into the flock. We can’t do this at Wheeler with these birds. At Wheeler, we would just have to release them and hope for the best.” Duff has been to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur several times and has observed the Whooping cranes. Those Whoopers are migrating with a flock of several thousand Sand hill cranes, and have been doing so for three or four years. He says that the layout of the reserve and the location of the flock prevents the gentle release. “I am still hugely in favor of the effort we are making in Florida. It is proving to be quite successful. And I would still like to get these birds down there. Our mandate is to get these birds to Florida.” But that mandate could change if WCEP decides differently, possibly as early as today.

Operation Migration, in it’s eleventh year of flying first-year Whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida, has successfully grown the flock to around one-hundred birds. They are now migrating on their own on a path that disappeared when the last wild Whooping crane that flew it died in 1870. The only Whooping crane migratory path that remained until 2001 was the flock of sixty-or-so birds that fly 2500 miles from Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas. In 1940, there were only 15 Whooping cranes left. A heroic effort by conservationists and Canadian and American national wildlife organizations has grown the population to nearly 450 birds. The eastern migratory route is being reestablished to provide a safety net. If the Whooping cranes in Texas were to be wiped out either by storms, or human interference, this new route could provide for the continuation of the species.

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Beth Lauxen February 1, 2012 - 7:40 pm

Thank you Joe Duff for this excellent description of what both choices for the cranes really mean. I for one did not realize how intensive a “soft” release is…a wonderful transition for these hand-reared birds. I see why so many are attached to this final outcome, as opposed to just turning them loose with no ability to transition them at Wheeler. I trust that those of you who have been involved with this Class of 2011 will make the decision based on whatever the consensus is for what is best for the birds. Thank you for all you have done and shared with us, enjoyed flying with you when you actually got to fly. I think that regardless of the decision, there is much to learn still from this group of whoopers. Best wishes for the rest of this season and for next year and years to follow.

Mary Carton February 1, 2012 - 11:14 pm

I think this is the best solution. With the warm weather, their clocks may be saying it’s time to go north, but us humans are saying they need to go south. Bluebirds are already making nests in my boxes, way to early.


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