Operation Migration Continues Despite Challenges

November 26, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

A while back a feel-good family movie called “Fly Away Home” highlighted the work done by a group of people who call themselves Operation Migration. The job of these dedicated people is to teach groups of hand-raised whooping cranes their migration patterns so that they can be successfully introduced into the wild.

But clearly it is never quite as simple as that. For starters the birds have to be hand-raised, yet without absolutely any contact or bonds forming with their human keepers. The raising process starts before the chicks are even hatched, when they play recordings of a ‘brood call’. The noise not only reassures the growing chick, but it implants this parental sound on the chick so that it is easier to guide it once it is hatched. It is a natural sound that the parent would normally give to the chick while brooding. Once the eggs are hatched, the really hard work begins. The birds have to be fed while they are weak and then taught how to feed themselves. All the while, their human handlers make very sure that they are not ever accustomed to humans. The idea is to raise them to be as wild as possible. The birds are not exposed to human voices, the sounds of cars or anything else. Whatever is taken to the pen is carefully camouflaged or concealed, including the humans who don white robes so that they somewhat resemble the mother crane.

After months of hard work, the birds are stretching their flight feathers and ready to attempt their first migration. And this is where Operation Migration comes into play. The birds do not instinctively know where to go. Yet they only need to be shown once and they’ll know exactly what to do for the rest of their lives. So when migration season rounds the corner, the birds are carefully prepared for flight by being encouraged to follow a small flock of ultralight aircraft. The ‘brood call’ which they’ve known since before they hatched is played from the aircraft – amplified so that it can be heard over the noise of the single-propeller, single-wing aircraft. Over time the chicks develop the strength needed to sustain them in their long-distance flight. And that is where things start to get tedious and difficult. The flight crew needs to guide the birds from their home all the way to Florida. The problem: the weather doesn’t always play ball. While the birds could probably handle less than perfect weather, the light aircraft cannot. It’s a frustrating, long journey that can see the selfless pilots and workers away from their families for over five months of the year. But it’s worth it. In the eight years that the Operation Migration project, led by Joe Duff, has been in action, the Eastern Migratory Population has been built up from zero to several dozen birds. At the moment they’re in the process of showing 14 new birds the way. Unfortunately so far the going has been tough due to adverse weather conditions.

The human-aided migratory flight not only raises awareness about the danger that the whooping cranes are in, but of the danger that so many of our feathered friends face. It’s not only a chance to help these birds, but a chance to educate and to encourage conservation. Hats off to Operation Migration!

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