Flying North to Fly South

Preparing the critically endangered whooping crane for migration could save the flock

(Eric Jaffe)

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No one felt the loss of those 17 birds more than Operation Migration's Joe Duff, the Canadian naturalist who helped pioneer microlight-led migration efforts with Canada geese in the 1990s. Each year, he is one of the handlers who put the fledgling cranes through their paces at Necedah. Over a period of several weeks, the cranes follow the microlights on short training flights that establish flying patterns and a natural pecking order within the newly assembled flock. When the birds are ready to head south for the winter, Duff straps into one of Operation Migration's four microlights for the months-long journey south.

This year, the crane-recovery team had been hoping for a healthy brood of at least 24 chicks to mitigate the loss of the birds in February. But injuries and developmental problems has left the Class of 2007 at just 17.

Taking considerably longer than a "natural" migration, which is unaffected by the same weather delays or aircraft fuel constraints, the migratory caravan will reach the Chassahowitzka refuge, about 60 miles north of Tampa, Florida, after approximately 60 days. Then it's time to say goodbye, anonymously.

"These are not pets, they are wild birds," says Duff. "You do get personal favorites, you do get attached. But attachment is torn with the fact that our purpose is to have as little to do with these birds as possible."

Alistair Wearmouth is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Virginia.


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