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Drexel Engineering Professor on Leave to Help Raise Endangered Whooping Crane Chicks

November 5, 2010

Drexel Engineering Professor on Leave to Help Raise Endangered Whooping Crane Chicks
With a total world population of less than 600, the whooping crane, the most famous endangered bird in North America, is critically endangered. Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are doing their part to save the species by raising the whooping crane chicks for reintroduction to the eastern part of the country. Since 1967, Canadians and Americans have cooperated in a successful recovery program to safeguard the whooping crane from extinction.

Drexel University professor Dr. Patricia Gallagher has taken time off from her teaching duties as professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel to help train the chicks to follow ultralight when young. The juvenile cranes are taught the migration route in the fall and return to the nesting grounds unaided the following spring. In early May, she joined Operation Migration as part of the ground crew to teach the chicks the migrate route from Wisconsin to Florida. Simultaneously she is conducting a study to determine the effects of the rearing techniques on crane behavior. Gallagher recently finished gathering data for her study and will soon begin the analysis.

“We need to protect and preserve our environment as well as the other species that we share the earth with,” said Gallagher. “Working on this reintroduction project allows me to give back and to educate others about the importance of conservation. I enjoy working with the chicks and being able to watch them grow.”

Migration is a process that migratory birds learn from their parents. In the 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 Canada 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 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 training sessions take about an hour. 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 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 cranes continue their flight training behind the ultra-light aircraft. The length of time and the distance they fly increases weekly in preparation for migration.

Gallagher has been with the chicks since they hatched in Maryland. She is currently on migration between Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and Florida. 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. Gallagher saw the film Fly Away Home many years ago and has followed Operation Migration and the reintroduction project since then. She began working with Operation Migration during her 2008/2009 sabbatical.

Operation Migration is a non-profit organization promoting the conservation of migratory species through innovative research, education and partnership. For more information and to follow the migration, please visit


News media contacts: Niki Gianakaris, director, Drexel News Bureau 215-895-6741, 215-778-7752 (cell), Elizabeth Brachelli, public relations manager, Drexel College of Engineering 215-895-6454, 267-357-2527 (cell)

Photo: Photo included with permission from Operation Migration. Reproduction must be coordinated with Operation Migration.

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