Bird's Eye View
October 5, 2010 For a second season, CAEE Associate Professor Dr. Patricia Gallagher, has been working with Operation Migration, raising endangered whooping crane chicks for reintroduction to the eastern United States. She has the vantage point of being up close and personal with the whooping crane chicks in an effort to save them from becoming extinct. She has the ‘Bird’s Eye View.’
Operation Migration has developed a technique to reintroduce captive-reared migratory birds to their former range using ultralight aircraft. The captive-reared birds are trained to follow ultralight aircraft when young. The juvenile cranes are taught the migration route in the Fall and return to the nesting grounds unaided the following spring. Gallagher is currently raising chicks and assisting with flight training as the birds prepare for migration. She’s also conducting a behavioral study to determine the effects of rearing treatment on behavior. In early October, she‘ll join Operation Migration as part of the ground crew as the chicks are taught the migration route between Wisconsin and Florida.
The whooping crane is critically endangered, with a total population of less than 500. This number includes about 200 cranes in the sole natural population, which migrates between southern Texas and northern Canada, about 100 birds in the reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population, about 40 birds in a reintroduced non-migratory flock in Florida and a captive flock of about 150 birds that is located in several facilities around the U.S. and Canada.
Migration is a process that migratory birds learn from their parents. In case of the whooping crane, when chicks are hatched in captivity, their parents are not able to teach them a migration route. Operation Migration developed the technique of ultralight-led migration in the 1990s with Canadian geese. Subsequently, the technique was tested on sandhill cranes prior to its use with the endangered whooping cranes. The ultimate goal of this project is to establish a self-sustaining migratory flock of whooping cranes.
To teach the chicks to fly behind the ultralight aircraft, they are trained from the time they hatch until migration begins. In the wild, chicks imprint on their parents, who teach the young chicks survival skills, such as eating, drinking, and flying. When chicks are hatched in captivity, costumed handlers teach the chicks to eat and drink, as well as how to follow behind the ultralight aircraft. The costumes are required to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans. The handlers use taxidermy puppet heads that look like adult cranes to encourage chicks to eat and drink, as well as to follow the handler out to the aircraft. Before the chicks fledge, the ultralight pilots taxi the plane along a grass runway with the chicks walking behind it. After the chicks fledge, the pilots fly in circuits around the pen and the chicks learn to fly behind the aircraft and build strength for the migration.
The chicks are incubated and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. The eggs come from the captive breeding flock. During May, June and July, Gallagher assisted with the early rearing process at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. In addition to teaching the chicks how to eat and drink, she assisted in exercising (walking and swimming) and training the chicks to follow behind the ultralight aircraft. When the chicks are about 45 days old, they are flown to their summer home at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Necedah, Wisconsin. The chicks make this first flight in crates on commercial aircraft. Their first unassisted flight occurs at Necedah a few weeks later.
At the refuge, the young cranes continue their flight training behind the ultra-light aircraft.The length of time and the distance the juvenile cranes fly increases weekly in preparation for migration. In October, the birds follow the aircraft and begin the almost 1300-mile directed migration, making stops through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia until they are released in the central gulf coast of Florida. The migration stopovers are typically about 50 miles apart. In the wild, the cranes can migrate a few hundred miles a day, but with human-assisted migration, the stops need to be much closer together because the aircraft can only fly for about 3 or 4 hours without refueling. The juvenile whooping cranes only need to be shown the migration route once – in the spring they return to Wisconsin unaided. In subsequent years, they continue to migrate on their own between Wisconsin and Florida.
Gallagher has been with the chicks since they hatched in Maryland. She is currently living in Wisconsin at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and preparing for migration. She will work with OM during the migration before returning to Drexel in December. During summer training and migration, much of her time is spent in a trailer, waiting for the weather to be just right for flying, but to her it is worth it. She began working with Operation Migration during her 2008/2009 sabbatical.
Article written by Katie Morrison