By Mary Eisenhart
As you read this, a little group of Rex beneficiaries is settling in for a peaceful summer of domestic tranquility after a long journey.
No, critically endangered Whooping cranes.
Once abundant in North America, Whooping cranes (so called for their distinctive vocalizations) are the largest native bird on the continent – an adult male can be nearly five feet tall and have a wingspan approaching seven feet. While they once existed by the thousands, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw them hunted to near extinction, both for food and for their beautiful feathers. Exacerbating the problem was the loss of their habitat to urban development. By the 1940s, only 15 of the birds still existed, and the few hundred cranes living today are all descended from those birds.
Until recently, only one flock still lived in the wild and carried on its historic migration, spending winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and summers in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. A smaller number lived in zoos and other forms of captivity. Scientists worried about the likelihood of a single disaster – a hurricane, an epidemic of avian flu -wiping out most or all of those birds, and the impact that would have on a species still hovering on the brink of ceasing to exist. Adding to the concern was that fact that human encroachment was taking its toll on the Texas wintering grounds, with a freeway, oil refineries and other hazards nearby.
As a stopgap measure, a non-migratory flock, raised from the eggs of captive birds, was established in Florida, but everyone agreed that it would be even better to have a second migratory group in a different location. But how to get there? Since migratory birds learn their migration routes from their parents and there were no migratory parents to raise the offspring of captive birds, this was a troubling conundrum for years.
Enter Operation Migration, which got its start in 1989 when Canadian artist Bill Lishman, who’d always been fascinated with flight, first used an ultralight aircraft to fly with Canada geese. Four years later he and colleague Joe Duff successfully used ultralights to lead a flock of young geese on its first migration from Ontario to Virginia – and the flock successfully made it back the next spring. (The saga, slightly Hollywoodized and enhanced with a young Anna Paquin, became the 1996 hit movie “Fly Away Home.”)
The scientists at the Canada / United States Whooping Crane Recovery Team heard of this, and thought that what worked for geese might work for endangered cranes.
But, says Operation Migration’s Liz Condie, “It took more than a decade of tests and trials and experiments before the scientists in U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided they would entrust some very valuable eggs from a very endangered species to folks who were going to dress up in a costume, jump into an airplane, and try to lead these birds halfway across the continent! They placed a lot of requirements on us; we developed a lot of protocols to meet and overcome their every objection.
“For example, one of the things we encountered working with other species was that they became tame, so we had to develop a wildness protocol, which includes never letting the birds hear a human voice or see a human form. People think that we dress up to look like cranes, but we don’t. All we want to do is disguise the human form. We wear a whooping crane puppet on one arm, and that’s what we want them to focus on. Our idea is to make sure we don’t look like a person, so if they encounter you or me down the road somewhere, they go ‘Eek!’ and fly away.
“So when they decided they would entrust us with these valuable endangered birds, after we had developed the protocols in place in 2001, we launched the first migration with Whooping cranes. It was a success, and we’ve been doing it ever since, only a little bit better and with a few more birds every year.”
The new flock spends summers in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and winters in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the west coast of Florida. It currently comprises 72 birds.
The winter of 2006-2007 brought a devastating loss that only highlighted the importance of having multiple flocks and multiple locations. The Chassohowitzka refuge was hit by an unexpected severe storm; the resulting lightning and storm surge killed all but one of the 18 young birds that had successfully made that year’s migration. The lone survivor was later killed by a predator.
“It totally wiped out an entire year’s work and a whole year of funding,” says Condie, “and it’s going to leave a large gap, genetically speaking; four or five years down the road when that generation would have been sexually mature and of breeding age, there’s going to be a void.
“As a result, we’ve added other precautions; we’ve installed a new release gate in the wintering pen, made all manner of adjustments, different weather radios. But it was the middle of the night when they put out the alert about this storm, and the pen’s site is five miles offshore by airboat. Once the storm came up there was no way we could risk humans to go out in any event. It was just an unmitigated disaster.”
Some time later, Rex board member and longtime bird lover Rosalie Howarth was reading the paper at work at San Francisco radio station KFOG one day when, she says, “I saw this tiny little one-paragraph report about how the entire small flock of Whooping cranes that had been raised and trained and followed ultralights down to their winter quarters in Florida had been wiped out in a storm. And maybe it was one of those vulnerable days, but I just burst into tears – here’s this small gutsy group that’s saving a species one bird at a time, and this completely wiped out their whole one year’s effort, and wiped out a significant percentage of the entire population of North American Whooping cranes.
“I felt I just had to email them,” she continues, “with profound condolences, saying please don’t despair, please continue… And I got an email right back from Liz Condie, saying ‘We’re utterly devastated, but we’re committed to carrying on, and we will go back and hand raise and train another flock and continue with our effort. There’s no turning back now.'”
Thus began a cordial email relationship, and some months later, when Operation Migration found itself short a small amount of money to meet the requirements for a large matching grant, Howarth brought the case to Rex.
“I have always been a lover of birds,” she explains, “and to me the greatest needs these days are environmental needs, for the animals and the plants that have no voice and can’t defend themselves. Rex is devoted not only to humanitarian causes, social justice causes, peace and freedom, but also to the environment. And this was an ideal way to fund a small, devoted group who are trying to save a species from the degradation we have visited upon them over the years. Since my aim and my slant is on environmental issues, I thought this was an organization I should bring to the table for Rex.”
As a result, Operation Migration received a $5,000 grant from Rex in 2007, allowing it to qualify for the $35,000 matching grant. This, says Howarth, will allow them to repair, and if necessary help to replace, aging ultralight aircraft, whose original manufacturer has long since gone out of business.
We recently had a chance to talk with Operation Migration’s Liz Condie and learn more about their efforts.
Rex Foundation: From the egg on, how does each year’s migration unfold?
Liz Condie, Operation Migration: The eggs hatch in incubators, and the chicks first go outside at three or four days. We have to teach them how to drink, how to eat, the same as their parents would do. In the costume, we take them out to walk them around and make sure they get exercise. We teach them to forage and what to forage for.
Depending on each chick and how excitable or calm its personality is, we then introduce them to the trike, the ultralight. The first few days it just sits there and we let them get accustomed to it, poke around and forage. Eventually, we’ll start up the engine and let them get used to that noise. They’ve heard that noise before; we play a tape recording of the ultralight engine while they’re in the egg; we play that along with their mother’s brood call.
Then we do circle pen training. The ultralight goes around the outside of the pen, with a large puppet called “Robocrane” dispensing mealworms so that each bird gets used to following the ultralight. All the birds have to be trained individually, and each one gets about 20 minutes of this training each day, in addition to walking and their other regular exercise.
At 40-50 days, the chicks are put in a special crate and flown from Laurel, Maryland to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. They’re taken there at that age because they haven’t fledged. The reason is, the first place a bird sees from the air, it considers its home nesting ground. That’s where we want them to consider home, to nest and breed, so that’s why we take them there before they can fledge.
Once they’re there we work to socialize them. Whooping cranes aren’t collegial birds; they don’t flock. A group of Whooping cranes is generally a parent and a chick, or two or three sub-adults. So we have to socialize them, get all the kids outside to play and watch to make sure everybody gets along, because they have to establish the pecking order within the group. While that’s going on, we have the trike on a grassy strip runway, and eventually we’ll start the trike and they’ll follow it. We’ll just go up and down the runway with them coming along behind; we call that taxi training.
And then one day when the trike’s going down the runway and the birds are going along behind and they’ve grown a little bit bigger, all of a sudden they’ll start flapping their wings and catch a little bit of ground effect air, and literally leave the ground. You can see the penny drop – oh my gosh, see what I can do. Eventually they’re flying behind the trike, and we start doing circuits around the refuge. We gradually increase the duration of the flights, because we need them to follow us a long way.
We pick target dates for migration, usually in early October, but it depends on Mother Nature. We can say we’ll go on X day, but we go on the day we get the weather to fly on. And off we go on migration.
The trip takes from 48 to 97 days, depending on the weather. We have stopover places, rural areas where birds can be isolated in a travel pen away from humans; there are approximately 30 of them, and we use about 25 of them each year. We usually fly about 50 miles a day; one year they did a 200-mile leg, but we have to have absolutely perfect flying weather and a bit of a tail wind to do that.
We take the birds to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The pen site is on the refuge, about five miles offshore in a salt marsh. That’s where the young birds spend the winter. They have a four-acre pen site that’s open.
We do what’s called a gentle release. We have them at the pen site, and of course they all of a sudden look up and say, my goodness, I can just fly out of here. And that’s what they do. But we encourage them to come back in each night, to protect them against predators.
The pen site is on water. We want to teach them to water roost, because that’s natural for cranes and they can hear the splashing approach of a predator. Gradually they become more independent, and we supply food and water to attract them back in.
All of a sudden one day come spring the handler will check the pen and some or all of the birds will be gone. Whatever spirit that tells them it’s time, away they go, and they make the journey back home all on their own.
Rex: Of each year’s generation, what percentage of the birds survives, normally?
Operation Migration: Over the life of the project, not counting last year’s disaster, total survivorship is about 75-80% of the birds; we lost nine birds to predators last year, which is pretty high. The return rate is 86-87%, which is a little better than the original migratory flock.
Rex: You mention that you’ve made constant improvements to the program as it’s developed. What are some of the changes?
Operation Migration: Small changes that might not be obvious, in the rearing process. We’ve increased the amount of swimming exercise so they have stronger legs and less chance of hock rotation. Imprinting starts now much younger. Once they’ve fledged, the training schedule can be optimized to build up stamina. In 2008, when weather permits, we are looking at doubling the daily flight training sessions.
It’s all tweaking, because it’s not like there’s a road map for doing these things! We keep tweaking and improving and doing these what-ifs, and if we don’t see a major detrimental effect, we say, let’s try it a little, and try it a little more, and that’s how we’ve gone on.
Rex: Inevitably someone out there will read this and get offended because money is being spent to save birds when people are in need. What are your thoughts on that?
Operation Migration: One of the reasons to worry about Whooping cranes specifically is because they’re a keystone species. If you can save Whooping cranes and Whooping crane habitat, there are probably at least 50 other species that will survive as well.
There’s no doubt there is human need. But in the bigger perspective, statistics will show you that less than 3% of all philanthropic dollars go to conservation causes, and less than 3% of that 3% goes to wildlife causes. There’s very little money there.
I think surely it’s a matter of choice. My belief is that there is money to go around. People make choices, and we hope that some of them do care about animals as well as humans.
Rex: Anything else you’d like folks to know?
Operation Migration: As much as we love Whooping cranes, one of our other concerns is our initiatives related to habitat. We can save all the Whooping cranes, but if they don’t have any place to live…
We ask people to think about the environment, about conservation, and make small correct choices every day to make it a better place for us and the Whooping cranes.
“Rex is devoted not only to humanitarian causes, social justice causes, peace and freedom, but also to the environment. And this was an ideal way to fund a small, devoted group who are trying to save a species from the degradation we have visited upon them over the years.”
– Rosalie Howarth
Rex Board Perspective
Rosalie Howarth needs no introduction to Bay Area radio listeners, having been on the air on KFOG for the past 24 years, most recently hosting Acoustic Sunrise/Acoustic Sunset on the weekends. She also produces the Putumayo World Music Hour, syndicated nationally.
“I’m like a local radio gal,” says Howarth. “Seeing the changes in northern California over the last 40-50 years, that’s what I want to put my energies into – preserving and protecting the environment for the future.
“The Bay Area is completely saturated in the mindset of the ’60s and ’70s, of which the Grateful Dead were banner leaders. In those days we stood for environmentalism, anti-consumerism, leading a simpler life, using fewer resources. It’s all come back to us – it’s fashionable again now to be green. But for those of us in the Bay Area that still adhere to those values, it never went away, so I was pleased to be asked to serve on the Rex board as someone in the media to help with spreading the word.”
Her interest in birds, wildlife and the environment led her to suggest that Rex consider Operation Migration as a grantee. Now, she says, “I would just say to those who donate to Rex and join our Community Caravan, there’s a little fuzzy Whooping crane chick right now in Maryland being hand raised by Whooping crane puppets so they won’t imprint on humans. And later this summer they’ll be running around on their long gawky legs in a pen following an ultralight. And then up into the air for the first flight, and then the long flight all the way to the migration grounds.
“For all of you who have donated, there’s a little fuzzy-headed chick out there with your name on it!”