By Jon Mooallem
Operation Migration is one of several organizations that have been trying to help restore the whooping crane population in eastern North America for the past eight years. The wild and reclusive birds learn to migrate by following other cranes, so Operation Migration uses pilots, flying ultralight planes and dressed in whooping-crane costumes, to lead the cranes on a migratory route. Whooping cranes are hatched at the federal government's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and then sent for "flight training" at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. The ultralight planes and their costumed pilots serve as surrogate parents that teach the birds to run and fly behind the aircraft before their 1,285-mile flight to Florida. Operation Migration, with a nonprofit budget of $700,000, depends on volunteers to let their property be used for stopover points along the route. A group of fans, called "Craniacs," track the journey on OperationMigration.org and bring comfort food to the crew during these stopovers. The birds will continue to migrate on their own once shown the way.
March 11, 2009