County hosts endangered visitors

Published 2:22 pm Friday, January 8, 2010

On Thursday, Decatur County received some very special guests—about 20 endangered whooping cranes.

There are 85 migratory cranes in the eastern United States, and the numbers are only that high thanks to the Operation Migration group.

Teaching birds to migrate is vitally important for their survival. These birds cannot survive the harsh winters of the North. Since they are endangered, there is great risk of the young being orphaned and being unable to survive. To ensure that the young birds are taken care of, they are raised in captivity and taught safe migration routes.

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The birds began their lives in captivity where handlers try to simulate what would happen to them in the wild as closely as possible. The eggs are turned three times a day and the recordings of an ultralight plane engine are played for the birds to get them accustomed to the sound in preparation for the migration.

Once hatched, the baby birds are taught how to eat, drink, swim and how to follow a leader using a puppet crane head. All persons involved with rearing the baby birds must wear white costumes to disguise the human figure and are under a strict no-talking policy. This is so the birds do not become accustomed to people and become tame, which would damage their ability to live in the wild.

The birds are put in circle pens for taxi-training with the ultralights and the plane sounds are played for them along with crane brooding calls. Once they become accustomed to following on the ground and their flying feathers grow in, the birds are taught to follow the ultralights in the air. For every time the birds successfully follow, they are rewarded with a treat.

Time to move

When the birds are just about grown, it is time for the migration.

Beginning in Wisconsin, the birds fly south heading to two destinations in Florida. Leading the team of birds is an ultralight plane with the pilot in his white costume. There are a couple of other planes following the group, as well as some of the Operation Migration team in RVs following on the ground. The migration south is dotted with rest stops approximately every 55 miles.

In order to know where it would be safe to set up camp for the birds, the OM team sits down ahead of time and maps everything out using Google Earth. They map out spots at 50-60 mile intervals that would be ideal areas to isolate the birds from people. Once they have mapped the spots, they do a flyover to make sure those areas are suitable, and finally they drive the route to ensure there will be accessibility for them to get to the birds as well as the pilots of the ultralights. The safety of the birds is always first priority.

The group rests only a night, weather permitting, before moving on to the next location.

Route of the birds

Up until two years ago, the team was taking a more easterly route, which had them flying into the winds heading back north. In 2008, they began taking a more westerly route, which allowed the team to fly on the southbound winds. This route allows them to fly over Decatur County. This route offers flatter land, which in case a bird tires and falls out of the sky, allows the OM members following on the ground to reach it and give it any assistance needed.

When the birds have reached their destinations in Florida, they already know how to get home without aid. The OM team leaves them in order to head back and prepare the next generation for their first migration. Around 86 percent of the birds will find their way back to their core origin, riding thermals on the trip north. Some get knocked off their route by strong winds and settle elsewhere.

This amazing trip is 1,285 miles in total.

When fully grown, the whooping crane is 5 feet tall, making it the largest bird indigenous to North America.

Whooping cranes are much endangered. While their numbers were never past the tens of thousands many years ago, they were down to only 15 back in the 1940s due to human development of their habitats and over-hunting. Now that the birds are up to 85 in number, OM wants to ensure their survival.

Operation Migration asks that everyone be mindful that these birds are wild animals and should be left alone. If you come upon one in the wild, please give it the space it deserves. Do not approach within 600 feet if you are out in the wild or 300 feet if you are on a public road. In any case, do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. If the birds become too accustomed to humans and are “tamed,” they will have to be removed from the program and may not have the ability to survive on their own.

For more information about the whooping crane and Operation Migration, as well as videos from the migration, please visit