Operation Migration is known for the iconic photo of young Whooping Cranes flying in formation behind an ultralight aircraft.
Most people we have spoken to about OM said, “Oh yeah, like Fly Away Home!” And yes, the film Fly Away Home is based on the work done by Bill Lishman and Joe Duff who are the co-founders of Operation Migration…but the reality of OM is so much more.
Let’s begin with a quick overview of the equipment. The ultralight aircraft, known in OM lingo as the “trike”, is a Special Light Sport Aircraft (more background here for airplane enthusiasts).
OM has flown with a few different aircraft over the years and they continue to make modifications to make their trips more effective and efficient. One of the hoped-for improvements is to use a clear material on the wings to more easily keep track of the birds while in flight.
The most interesting modification is the electronic game caller which emits the brood call that an adult Whooping Crane would make to let her chicks know where she is and keep them close…
Then there are the costumes, known as “Tumes” in OM lingo. They are an essential part of rearing the young chicks. In order to prevent the birds from imprinting on humans, any time an OM staffer interacts with the chicks, they are silent and in a Tume.
The Tumes have also evolved over time. The most recent ones look like a cross of a Storm Trooper with an old-school Halloween ghost.
Luckily none of the birds have seen Star Wars or ghosts so they aren’t taken aback. In order to simulate the experience of being raised by another Whooper, the Tumes also include a strikingly realistic adult Whooper head and hinged mouth. These “puppets” are used to give food such as grapes to the young Whoopers and to teach them to forage on their own via mimicry.
From Egg to Migration-Ready Flying Powerhouse
Until there are enough Whoopers to ensure proper genetic variability and a large enough population to be self-sustaining, the Whooping Crane eggs are laid at captive breeding locations. They are brought to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.
Now, the goal is to rear them so that they’re used to hearing the engine of the ultralight and interacting with the Tumes. Before the eggs are hatched, and just after, aircraft engine sounds and the brood call are played near them. This is taking that Mozart for Mothers To Be thing to a whole new level. As laid out in their detailed protocol, the young chicks are slowly introduced to the aircraft. First, it has no wings and doesn’t move, then it moves, then the wings are added, etc. Bit by bit, the chicks adjust to their avian foster mother and the silent Tumes.
Before they can fly, the birds are then transferred to their next temporary home at White River Marsh Wildlife Area to begin flight training. They are housed in an enclosure that includes a dry pen and a wet pen.
Again, they are given time to slowly adjust to their new habitat and to the trike.
One Fine Flight Day
The Whooping Crane Festival was full of fun activities but our favorite, by far, was watching the flight training. Every morning of the festival (and every day until migration, weather permitting!), a group gathers at the Flyover Viewing location to ‘ooh’ and ‘aaah’ in unison (while some turn into waterworks, more on that later).
Besides the addictive CraneCam that we mentioned in our last post, there’s a third way to experience the flight training. Near the pen, there is a “blind”. It’s a very small camouflaged structure…
…from which silent, non-Tumed viewers can watch the Whoopers and ultralight take off and land.
At the festival Dinner we had the pleasure of sharing a table with some wonderful people, including Ann Gillis who generously gave up her spot to go the blind so we could have the opportunity. This was a highlight for us and a kindness that we will not soon forget.
This was our experience…
We met the Tume-wearers for that day: Doug, John, and Colleen. They were far more chipper than we were at $%@& in the morning.
After letting us conduct primary research on the equipment…
…Colleen and Doug went to the pen while we were escorted into the blind. Then, we, along with the Whoopers, waited with anticipation. Doug later told us they often excitedly peck at the door when they hear the trike approaching. The trike circled in front of the pen…
…and when Joe, the CEO/pilot, gave the ready signal, then Doug and Colleen opened the gates and the birds literally ran directly into take-off. The trike had to get moving to keep up!
And remember we mentioned waterworks? Well, that sight alone had one of us spouting enough tears to save California from its drought. It actually earned her the nickname, “The Blind Baller” which is not too shabby as nicknames go. It really was such a beautiful moment.
The trike and whoopers flew around for about 20 minutes, occasionally in view from the blind…
…with Joe providing regular updates about their speed, altitude, and what the cranes were up to: sometimes trying to overtake the aircraft and sometimes flying in a perfect line behind the wing.
Eventually, the whole cohort landed and the Blind Baller slowly flooded White River Marsh.
Then, Joe, Doug, and Colleen spent some time with the birds, giving them grapes via puppet to reward them for a wonderful flight.
It’s hard to put into words what made this whole experience so wonderful. The Whooping Cranes themselves are majestic. The way they learn to trust and interact with these silent, Tumed humans and a whooping Ultralight aircraft is magical.
But what we didn’t expect was how blown away we were by the people working to bring Whooping Cranes back from the brink. Every single OM employee wears many hats and pitches in wherever they’re needed (the stories we heard could fill a book!). And then there are the volunteer Craniacs such as the 2015 Volunteer-of-the-Year Mary, who makes every Tume by hand, modifying it for each person’s needs (she should be very proud that the costumes are now on display at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum).
Their tenacity, their passion, and their ability to continue their work tirelessly every single day – to battle any and all obstacles (both man-made and natural) – to do what any rational, thinking person would have said couldn’t be done… They work so hard literally saving an entire species (and all of us) one bird at a time and they do it with gusto, creativity, and a strong sense of purpose.
A lot of people talk about making an impact, making positive change on our planet but these people embody it. And the best part is…we can all help!
It’s a story of destruction, redemption, and hope. It’s a story about the balance of all living things. It’s a story about some tall, shy, trumpet-sounding, mostly-white, beautiful birds who were brought to the brink of extinction by us…who are slowly being saved by us…and who may be saving us after all.
According to fossil records, Cranes have been around for about 12 million years (give or take a million). They have inspired humans for generations; through folk tales and legends they have symbolized happiness, wisdom, longevity, and prosperity.
Here in New York City, cranes symbolize prosperity too. We see them every single day, extending their long necks to pick up bits of wood and steel off the ground and bring them to the highest heights. All kidding aside, construction cranes were actually named after the bird. And, at 220 feet in height, New York City now has the tallest freestanding construction crane it has ever seen. Sigh.
Speaking of tallest, the Whooping Crane is the tallest flying bird in North America. It stands at 4.5-5 feet tall with a wingspan of 7-8 feet (that’s the same or wider than Lebron James’ wingspan!). This summer, when we heard about the Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin, we jumped at the chance to learn more about this majestic creature.
As we drove from NYC to Wisconsin, we felt thrilled that we were going to see the rare Whooping Crane with our own eyes. To hear its renowned Whooping call. To watch its elegant dance. To witness its slow, graceful step-by-step wading through still waters. There are only about 600 of these gorgeous Grus Americana in existence today and the chance to see one up close is an amazing opportunity.
Before humans populated North America, it is believed that Whooping Cranes were quite abundant, numbering about 15,000-20,000. Their habitat ranged from Utah in the west to New Jersey in the east. By 1850, as people moved West and larger scale agriculture exploded, their population had decreased to about 1500. By 1941, due to continued habitat loss (wetlands being drained and repurposed for agriculture) and unregulated hunting (not just for meat, but as trophies especially as the birds became more rare), there were only 21 Whooping Cranes in existence. To give you some perspective, that’s the same size as the Duggar’s nuclear family! We know who we’d rather see more of…
In 1967, Whooping Cranes were declared an Endangered Species (this is NOT required for the Duggars) and conservation efforts started in earnest. Though many efforts in the past have failed (and they have been incredibly creative), conservationists have learned a lot and are starting to see great success. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of groups working to restore a self-sustaining, migratory population of Whoopers to eastern North America, details some of the efforts currently underway (including raising, training, releasing and monitoring).
One of the founding members of the partnership is the International Crane Foundation, which is the only place in the world one can see all 15 species of cranes, 11 of which are endangered. We got to visit them in Baraboo, WI.
From the Black Crowned Crane of Africa…
to the Brolga from Australia…
…it’s easy to see why Cranes have captivated humans for so long. But the biggest takeaway for us was a deeper understanding of the impact that the cranes’ habitat loss has on all of us.
“Like a canary in the coal mine" as one of the Festival-goers stated, the demise of the Whoopers was a stark warning that we had been rapidly losing our marshes and wetlands. Among other things, The ICF works around the world to restore wetlands in order to save all cranes (don’t miss their masterful video Cranes: Symbols of Survival, narrated by Tom Brokaw)…but the reality is that those habitats also play a vital role in human survival. From the EPA: “…wetlands provide values that no other ecosystem can, including natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation, and natural products for our use at no cost.”
So are we saving the Whooping Cranes or are they saving us? Turns out, the answer is both.
(this sign hangs at ICF near the Whooping Cranes)
In our next post, we go behind the scenes with Operation Migration. In the meantime , pop some popcorn and check out their Crane Cam (on 24-7) to start get to know the 2015 class of six young whoopers. Warning: this is completely addictive!
The Whooping Crane Festival has wrapped up and we have so much to share that we’ll be breaking it into a multi-part series. As we migrate back to New York City, we’ve been reflecting on everything we learned and how inspired we have been.
Before we get into the full story, we’d like to dedicate this poem to the Operation Migration team and all the Craniacs out there.
White Marsh Dawn
The fog hangs low in pockets, still, The sun a line behind the hill, The crows snack roadside, get their fill, The morning breathes a sigh.
And in the marsh, hear life’s refrain, The birds, the bugs, the critters reign, No wind, no rain, good day to train, It’s time to take the sky.
Tumes and Wellies* on, can’t be late, Trike’s in sight, we’ve got a date, Whoopers, eager, peck the gate, They just can’t wait to fly.
The trike’s a go, the whoopers free, They rumble tumble out with glee, They run, they jump, and whoop whoopee, No time for a goodbye.
From down below, we see them soar, They slide, they glide, first aft then fore, They form a line and flap no more, Fly low and then fly high.
And now the sun is glowing bright, As man, machine, and crane take flight, Through grit, invention, and pure might, All odds we can defy.
Weather permitting, the 2015 class of 6 young Whoopers will start their guided fall migration this Sunday, September 20. More from us soon as well.
*Tumes and Wellies = the white cosTUME and Wellington boots that Operation Migration folks wear when they work with the cranes.
We temporarily traded the big city for the open country to whoop it up at the annual Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, Wisconsin. There is no better way to see the great work being done by Operation Migration and the WCEP. It is truly breathtaking.
Some photos from this morning’s training flight just after dawn:
Don’t worry, you won’t have to crane your neck…we’ll be bringing you more on this story so keep your hawk eyes open.