Whooping Crane Babies Learn to Fly with Special Planes
Cranes need planes. Well, to be more precise, endangered whooping cranes need the support of three new ultralight aircraft to help them survive. Crowdsourcing the cost could mean the difference between the success or failure of a remarkable program that teaches baby cranes how to migrate.
Since 2001, Operation Migration has used an aircraft-guided migration technique to lead small bands of whooping crane fledglings from Wisconsin to Florida. The group uses ultralight aircraft to teach the captive-bred fledglings their 1,200-mile migration route so that in subsequent seasons they will migrate successfully on their own, as nature intended.
Each spring, Operation Migration takes 6-week-old captive-bred crane chicks from around the country each year and moves them to its site in Wisconsin. There, as the chicks mature through the summer and into the fall, the group teaches them to imprint on their new surrogate parent — an ultralight plane.
To keep the fledglings “wild,” caretakers strictly control interaction with the impressionable young cranes. Neither caretakers nor pilots ever speak in the fledglings’ presence. When around the young birds, workers wear large white bird-like costumes to keep the fledglings from becoming used to human contact. It looks a little silly, but it seems to work well.
Flight training during the summer strengthens the young cranes and teaches them to follow the ultralight plane in the air. The video below shows a flock of whooping crane youngsters setting off behind their ultralight leader on their long migration to Florida:
To date, Operation Migration has led more than 150 young whooping cranes along this route, establishing a new eastern North American migratory population that would not exist but for this effort. This accomplishment has been called “the wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the moon.”
It’s a difficult and amazing task, and it’s working — but the new whooping crane population is not yet self-sustaining. This work must continue if the species is to be saved.
Unfortunately, this remarkable program may be in jeopardy if Operation Migration cannot find the funding to purchase three new aircraft the FAA tells them they must now use.
Operation Migration’s problems started in 2011 when the FAA received a complaint that the nonprofit’s ultralight pilots were not properly licensed for the type of salaried flying they were doing. According to FAA regulations, these ultralight gliders are “sport planes” which must only be flown for “personal use.” Because Operation Migration was paying its pilots to lead these migration flights, it ran afoul of the personal use requirement.
The FAA is not the villain here, however. By all accounts, the agency has been exceptionally flexible in minimizing the requirements it must impose on Operation Migration. Had the FAA required the group’s pilots to go strictly by the book — by obtaining commercial pilot licenses and flying only certified aircraft — it could well have doomed this program. To its credit, the FAA did not do that.
Instead, as FAA spokesperson Elizabeth Cory told the Associated Press, “Even though we’re the regulators, we believe what they do is a good thing and we want to help them achieve their mission.”
Operation Migration got a two-year exemption from the FAA to give it time to meet the stricter standard for its planes and pilots. The group’s pilots are now authorized to fly new, specially designed aircraft meeting Special Light-Sport Aircraft standards, using private pilot licenses.
Those new aircraft had to be specially designed to enable the pilots to fly in formation with the young cranes, sometimes going as slow as 33 mph. That’s just about stalling speed and can’t be done in traditionally manufactured aircraft.
The goodwill of the FAA and North Wing has been enormously helpful. Unfortunately, the new aircraft will cost money that Operation Migration doesn’t have. The group is now scrambling to fund the $84,700 price tag in time to have the new aircraft in hand by spring 2014, when the imprinting process must begin for the fall migration.
To find the money, Operation Migration has turned to crowdsourcing. Working against a deadline of July 26, the nonprofit hopes contributions from the public will help it reach its goal in time.
Whooping cranes are one of only two native North American crane species. Almost hunted to extinction in the mid-1940s, the species has rebounded to about 600 whooping cranes, thanks in part to Operation Migration’s efforts. Since this program began, Operation Migration has transitioned 40 whooping cranes from captive-bred chicks into wild, successfully migrating adults.
If Operation Migration can get its new planes, it can do so much more. The sky’s the limit.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock