Reviving species - with a puppet and planes

In bid at repopulation, costumed pilots lead whooping cranes on their old migration south.

Bird no. 303 was the troublemaker. No. 307 was antisocial. No. 310 was aggressive, 311 was aloof, and 307 cried at his costumed handler. But this week, the 16 whooping cranes - gliding obediently behind three gas-powered flying machines with human "bird mothers" - banked to the right above the Big K department store. They touched down on an unremarkable patch of marshland in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. And, finally, after two months and 1,200 miles, the gangly birds were home.

It has to be one of man's strangest odysseys since Orville and Wilbur Wright - human beings dressed as birds flying machines with birds following who think that those humans - in their planes - are birds. But humans go to great lengths to snub Darwin: Like the reintroduction of red wolves and elk in the Smoky Mountains, this was part of a wider effort to drag animals back from the brink of extinction and repopulate regions with species that have disappeared. Florida was the cranes' winter home before they died off in the East; this journey was designed to show them back to their old habitat.

It's the third year in a row that ultralights have led flocks of endangered whooping cranes on a migration south, but this group took more time, and got into far more trouble. The pilots were constantly corralling AWOL cranes; one day, a few birds wandered off course near a nuclear power plant and attracted the attention of an F-16 on maneuvers. The Air Force pilots wanted an explanation for men in bird costumes flying near a nuke plant.

LeRoi Johnson was one in a crowd of about 500 last week, huddled in a parking lot off Route 19. Sitting in his beach chair in the shadow of the Crystal River Mall, his binoculars aimed at the morning sky, he watched quietly as the cranes approached. It was one of the more beautiful sights of his life, he said. Fifteen birds trailed one aircraft; No. 312 had an ultralight to itself. Johnson had checked the online flight journal a few times daily since the birds took off - enough to know that the 16 rarely flew together, and they challenged the ultralights for the lead.

But the training began long before the birds took off from Necedah, Wis. - even before they were hatched. At the Patuxent Wildlife Center in Maryland, the eggs were exposed to recordings of airplane engines, acclimating them to the ultralights. The first thing the newborns saw, on hatching, was a "Mama Bird" hand puppet. The chicks latched onto the puppet as to a mother and were trained to follow it everywhere. Eventually, they could follow the puppet - on the costume of the ultralight pilot - into the air.

But between Wisconsin and Florida, there were meals to be eaten and naps to be had. When it came time to rest, a ground crew drove ahead of the flock and set up a temporary pen, donned costumes, and waited. As the pilots turned off their recording of a Mama Bird's call, the ground crew turned theirs on. The pilots flew away from the birds on a steep ascent, and the cranes - if all went well - dropped down for a landing where the "Mama Bird" was calling. There, a trail of cranberries led them to their pen. In the morning, as handlers left motels in costume, the omnivorous cranes ate prepared meals and scavenged for snacks - a garter snake, a frog, the occasional crab. As the pen was opened, the pilots swooped low and slow and turned their birdcall on - and hoped they wouildn't fly across a pond that would draw the flock back down for an unscheduled respite.

Gliding over Florida last week with the journey behind them, the months-old cranes were greeted as "the class of 2003."

John Christian of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta, part of the multiagency coalition behind the project, told the crowd it was "something you'll remember the rest of your lives.... There were a lot of people who thought this couldn't be done."

Despite one 90-mile-an-hour, 200-mile leg, the trip was "long and arduous," says Joe Duff, a pilot with Operation Migration, part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. After the birds landed, Mr. Duff said he'd head to Charley Browns "to eat crab until we fall over" - and then, to bed for a good night's sleep.

Following the release of "Winged Migration," the aviary epic in theaters last spring, this year's cranes drew more attention than in years past. But a whooping crane is hard to miss: At five feet tall and with wingspans of seven feet, they're North America's largest birds.

Whooping cranes had almost died off, dwindling from about 2,000 to a few hundred after years of hunting and environmental damage. The effort to restore them to the Eastern US was launched in 1999, when Operation Migration began gathering funds and federal support for a large-scale reintroduction. Two years later, costumed pilots led a flock of eight to Florida. Last year, 16 cranes made the same trip. This year's flock numbered 17 at the start, but one crane collided with an ultralight and died.

There are now roughly 450 whooping cranes in the US, most of them wintering in Texas and spending summers in Canada. Those in Florida will fend for themselves now - with transmitters on leg bands to help scientists track them. If all goes well, they'll return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. Eventually, as they reproduce, they'll teach their children to migrate, too.

"I think there's a little bit of shame that motivates us to go back and redress what we did wrong," says David Flaspohler, an ornithologist and assistant professor of conservation biology at Michigan Technological University. "And I think we do have a moral imperative to fix some of the things we broke."

But for the crew members who spent nearly every day of the past two months with the cranes, Monday was bittersweet. Pilot Brooke Pennypacker watched the birds' emerging personalities; he particularly liked No. 303. Standing near a booth selling whooping-crane T-shirts, stuffed toys, and baseball caps, he says he worried about the birds' well-being every minute of the 54-day journey. And now, like kids trooping off to college, the birds are on their own. And so is he.

"It'll be hard to adjust now," he says, "and get back to real life."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.