U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Whooping Cranes taking off.
It's that time of year when we start seeing reports in the news about the Whooping Cranes heading south once again. The Texas/Canada, or Western, flock that winters at Aransas will soon be winging our way again. Some have already started. Unlike many migrating birds, though, these big birds do not migrate in large flocks. Instead, they travel in family groups, usually parents and one chick, sometimes two. The birds mate for life and those family ties are exceedingly strong. Adolescent birds that are not yet mated sometimes gather in loose flocks to migrate.
As I've reported here in the past, conservationists have been working hard to establish other viable flocks of Whoopers so that we don't have all of our evolutionary eggs in one basket, just in case a disaster hits that basket. One of the most successful endeavors to date has been the establishment of a captive bred migrating flock which travels between Wisconsin and Florida each year. The unique feature of this flock is that the eggs are hatched in incubators and the chicks raised by humans (dressing in crane costumes) and when it is time to migrate in the fall, the flock of chicks is led to Florida by an ultralight. And now it is time to make that trip once again.
There are 10 cranes in the 2011 flock, five male and five female. This year, the birds were trained how to follow the ultralight planes at a new site, the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, which is southeast of Necedah, Wis., where earlier flocks have been trained.
The endangered birds are part of an effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of government and private agencies from Canada and the United States that works to ensure the crane's survival.
Before the whoopers are born, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near the eggs. After they are born, the birds are fed and cared for by people dressed in whooping crane costumes carrying whooping crane puppets. No one ever speaks near the birds to prevent them from bonding with humans.
The birds imprint on the ultralights and their costumed pilots, and are trained to follow the aircraft to learn how to migrate.
The program is designed to create a second migratory flock of whoopers in the event members of the only existing wild migrating flock, which flies from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, get sick or die off. The goal is to have 125 individual birds, including 25 breeding pairs, in the Eastern Migratory flock.
Once the birds finish their southern migration, they fly north on their own in the spring. The first year of the program, 2001, was also the migration that took the least amount of time, only 48 days. The longest migration was 97 days in 2007. The length of the trip depends on weather conditions. For the safety of the pilots and their precious charges, they only fly in favorable weather.You can follow the progress of this Eastern migratory flock at the website Operation Migration.
The population of Whooping Cranes in the wild stands at its highest number in several years. The success of the Eastern flock plus the establishment of non-migratory flocks in Louisiana and Florida offer more hope for the the bird's future survival. This is balanced by the challenges which the Western flock will face as they come home to the arid landscape that is Texas this fall. Will there be enough water in the wetlands and enough blue crabs to see them through the winter? For a wonderful bird that has inched ever so slowly away from the brink of extinction, it would be a tragedy to see a slide back.