From Backyards to Backwoods: Ultra-lights help whooping cranes fly south

Migration has already been underway for weeks. Purple martins, monarchs, and hummingbirds are some of the early travelers. They, however, are not the topic of today's column.

Whooping cranes
The survival of whooping cranes is the subject of "Operation Migration," which entails removing crane eggs from their Canadian nests and bringing them to the U.S. to hatch. Then ultra-light planes help guide them on their southern migration. (Photo courtesy Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, Wisconsin)

Migration has already been underway for weeks. Purple martins, monarchs, and hummingbirds are some of the early travelers. They, however, are not the topic of today's column.

We're going to look at one of nature's success stories - the return of the whooping crane. They are not Park Rapids residents. Their cousin, the sandhill crane, has been showing up around our area in recent years, but the only remaining wild whooping cranes migrate from Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park to the gulf coast of Texas.

In the 1860s there were an estimated 1,400 whooping cranes left in the world. Due to habitat destruction and hunting, the population plummeted to an all-time low of 15 birds in 1941. Conservation measures were taken and the numbers rebounded to approximately 180 by 1999.

That was good news, but it still concerned scientists. What if a tornado or other bad weather wiped out the one remaining flock? What if a disease spread through one of the rest areas along the migration path?

Those concerns led to the creation of "Operation Migration" in 2001. Each spring some crane eggs are removed from nests in Canada and hatched in the U.S. The chicks are raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Throughout the summer months scientists, who are dressed like giant whooping cranes to keep the chicks from imprinting on humans, become the surrogate parents.


As late summer turns to fall, the cranes are taught to fly by using ultra-light airplanes that, like the scientists, resemble giant cranes.

At this point, some of you are going to draw a comparison between this and a movie you may have seen called, "Fly Away Home."

In the movie a girl finds an abandoned nest of Canada goose eggs. She takes the eggs and hatches them in a homemade incubator. The goslings follow her around like puppy dogs all summer and then the migration question hits, "How will they find their way south without parents to guide them?" The solution was to lead them south behind ultra-light airplanes.

That movie was based on the work of William Lishman who actually did that with a flock of geese. Because of his research, Journey North and Operation Migration partnered with him to design a similar plan for the Wisconsin raised cranes. This new flock would not travel to Texas. In order to spread out the crane population, the raised birds would be re-introduced as the Eastern flock and their migration route would take them to Florida.

You can follow this migration each fall by logging on to the Journey North Web site,

jnorth/. It's a great activity for teachers and students, but can be just as informative and rewarding for anyone else on their home computers. You can also follow the migration of other species, including hummingbirds and monarchs.

Take time to read about William Lishman, check out the "Operation Migration" Web site, and consider popping some popcorn while watching "Fly Away Home."

Let me know what you find. You can contact me at .

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