In early fall, Operation Migration’s co-founder Joe Duff got some bad news. U.S. Fish and Wildlife released a vision document for the upcoming five years—and that vision did not include humans leading young whooping cranes on their first migration via aircraft. As strange as that sounds, that’s what Duff and his Operation Migration team have been doing for the past 15 years, in a Fly Away Home-style effort to help these beautiful, threatened birds rebound.
“That’s when we found out we were ending, too,” Duff says to me on the phone last week. I could still hear the frustration in his voice—the announcement caught him completely off guard.
“The decision seemed premature,” Duff continues, so Operation Migration publicly petitioned against USFWS’s vision statement until both groups met face-to-face at the overarching Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership meeting in Wisconsin last month. “Once we were together and had the conversation, then it made sense,” Duff says. USFWS explained how it wasn't just the ultralight-led migration that should go: All hand-raising methods had been put under the microscope, and it became clear that humans parents weren’t raising normal cranes.
Why were people parenting birds in the first place?
Since 2001, Operation Migration has led the nation’s most-loved leg of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s network of captive breeding and release programs. The early efforts started back in the late 1960s at The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The first wild-collected crane eggs were harbored there as researchers figured out how to bolster the birds’ numbers, still low after straddling extinction in 1941 when just 16 wild birds remained. To improve the species’ odds, in 1998 USFWS created the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish a second migratory whooper flock in the eastern U.S. Just one year later, they called on Duff to lead the birds. Duff was uniquely qualified for the job—he’s an ultralight aircraft pilot who had co-founded the charity Operation Migration after assisting in the world’s first human-led bird migration via small airplanes—this one for Canada Geese. Sitting in the pilot seat of his mini “ultralight” aircraft in the fall of 2001, Duff led seven captive-raised Whooping Cranes on their first migratory flight from Wisconsin to wintering grounds in west central Florida.
“It’s actually been a very successful reintroduction,” says Peter Fasbender, USFWS Field Office Supervisor, who made the decision to end the ultralight program: There are now close to 450 cranes free ranging in the wild (around 100 in the east and around 350 in the west).
The problem, though, is what these birds are doing in the wild. Many haven’t had successful offspring: From 2006 until now, only 10 chicks from over 200 nests in Wisconsin have fledged—all the other parents have failed to raise viable chicks. And all 10 of these chicks have hatched from the same six pairs, Fasbender says. “So 52 pairs in the population aren’t contributing at all.”
Both Fasbender and Duff pin low hatching numbers to the odd influence of human parents raising baby birds. Since the start, the program has been imprinting newly-hatched chicks directly onto the caregivers disguised by baggy white crane body suits and hand puppets. The lack of real parents, they believe, is teaching lousy parenting skills in the long run. “When it’s the chicks’ turn to parent, they’re not as attentive as they should be to their nests,” Duff says.
Conservationists are far from decoding and mimicking the subtle head bobs and wing flaps that parents share with their chicks. Much like other large and long-lived creatures (cranes can live for up to 25 years in the wild), there’s a steep learning curve between being a cinnamon-brown baby crane and an elegant, white adult. “And that’s what we believe is really lacking in this project,” Fasbender says. “It seems we’re falling short on really teaching a bird how to be a bird.”
Duff agrees that a key element of crane reproduction is being overlooked. “When you raise a chick completely by hand, something important goes missing,” he says.
Without playing crane parents, what can we do?
To bolster the cranes’ education, starting three years ago, the Patuxent breeding center has tried imprinting chicks onto real crane parents. “We’ve had good successes releasing them, but we’re still missing this ability to appropriately raise and fledge the chicks,” Fasbender says. He believes getting them out to the wild marsh habitat as soon as possible may help. To do this, at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge release site in Wisconsin, they’re testing an “adoption program” in which the many pairs who have lost their own chicks can take on a captive-born youngster. “These pairs already out on the landscape have tremendous reproductive potential,” Fasbender says. “We’re going to test this and a lot of other different options this year.”
If release programs send their chicks out to the marsh at younger ages, they also want to equip them with predator avoidance tactics. Groups will also continue relying on the newer Direct Autumn Release method that started in 2005. In this set up, young cranes fly behind older, wild individuals on their fall migratory routes rather than within the airstreams created by the ultralight aircraft.
Phasing in these fresh techniques is all part of the learning process that makes up wildlife conservation management. “We kind of understood that after five or so years, the ultralights wouldn't be needed anymore,” says Barry Hartup, the Director of Conservation Medicine at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, which is one of the core hatching centers.
Still, bird lovers elsewhere aren’t completely convinced—perhaps partly due to the inherent delight of Operation Migration’s presence in the sky. “I’ve received several thousand letters telling me this is the wrong way to go,” Fasbender says. But people don’t see that “it’s more about rearing than it is release.” Chicks need the nurturing of their own species.
Even if just a few birds are capable of reproducing and fledging on their own at first, Fasbender says, “that’s what we want.” The goal was to always make this population self sustaining—“If we’re not doing that, then essentially, we’ve failed.”
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Fish and Wildlife as Wisconsin Fish and Wildlife—it is in fact the Wisconsin division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.