November 19, 2013
Halloween has long-since passed, but you’d have no clue if you were looking at the Operation Migration crew. Dressed in long, white costumes with hoods that cover their faces, the group aims to trick their charge — a group of eight whooping crane chicks — from recognizing the human form as they teach them the migration route from Wisconsin to Florida behind ultralight airplanes.
The cranes were raised in Maryland before being brought to Wisconsin and trained to follow the plane as a surrogate parent. They left the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area and began their migration journey on Oct. 2. As of mid-November, the cranes were in Illinois, having traveled about 200 miles in 41 days. To see their current location, go to the Operation Migration blog, In the Field, or click on either of their two cams: http://www.ustream.tv/migratingcranes or http://www.ustream.tv/flyingcranes.
The amount the young whoopers travel varies by day, wind and weather. Wind and rain means they still put, sometimes for as long as 11 consecutive days. The problem is that whooping cranes fly at around 38 mph so a 20-knot headwind right on the beak can be as discouraging for the birds as paddling up stream, the crew explains in their blog.
Other days, the chicks just don’t cooperate. They start to follow the plane, and then go back to their pen. Or they’ll start to follow the plane, and then land in a hay field below. When they refuse to move, they are sometimes put in crates and driven to the next stop.
Why not just give up and crate them all the way? Operation Migration explains that the method increases the odds that the crane chick will successfully learn the migration routes, continue them in subsequent years and behave like wild birds.
Migration to their wintering grounds in Florida can take up to 16 weeks.
It is believed that approximately 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941 when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 birds. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, approximately 445 of them in the wild, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.
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