Mild Winter Forces Operation Migration To End Season in Alabama

Whooping cranes guided by one of Operation Migration's ultralight aircraft. Photo: Tim Ross

It was a season of surprises for Operation Migration, a group working to reestablish whooping cranes on the East Coast. Yesterday this year’s class of birds arrived at their final—if not originally intended—destination.

In December the birds made it to Alabama where weather delays and a brief holiday break kept them on the ground. The new year started with some concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration, which were quickly resolved by issuing a waiver for the group to finish this year’s migration.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature kept the birds grounded as bad flying weather—tornadoes, winds, thunderstorms—held the birds until last week. When the group resumed migration, nine young cranes in tow, the birds started scattering, ignoring their former formation.

“We don’t know precisely how it works, but at some point, the instinct for migration wears off,” says Operation Migration CEO Joe Duff. “Also the birds have become more mature, more independent of their parents.”

Given the birds’ disinterest in continuing, the group decided to drive the cranes to nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Originally, the birds were destined for coastal wintering grounds in Florida. In Operation Migration’s eleven year history, this is the first incomplete migration. The decision was a disappointment to the humans but will hopefully make little difference to the birds.

“This has been an unusually warm winter,” Duff says. “A lot of other bird species didn’t go as far south this year.”

This includes a few former Operation Migration whooping cranes who are among the seven whoopers already wintering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

The work of Operation Migration has become more vital as the world's only wild, natural whooping crane population —a slim 300 bird who winter in Texas— may be suffering due to drought. For more on Operation Migration's work, read Adam Hinterthuer's "Make Way for Whoopers."

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