According to the Tampa Bay Times, this winter nine whooping cranes and the bird-like ultralight plane they think of as Mom, were making their annual migration from Wisconsin to Florida. The cranes and the plane fly a 1,285 mile journey from Wisconsin to Florida, with stopovers, until their final destination. They made it to Alabama, where the pilot of the plane voluntarily grounded himself in order to meet FAA rules.
It turns out FAA regulations only permit pilots with commercial licenses to fly for hire. Operation Migration, a conservation group, hired the pilot flying the ultralight plane leading the cranes. The pilot only possessed a license for sports aircraft. Since the operation was in ‘mid-migration’ and the flight was determined to be in the public interest, the FAA decided to grant Operation Migration’s pilot a one-time waiver to resume leading the cranes’ migration. Depending on the weather, the migration is scheduled to continue this weekend.
The whooping crane is endangered
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is the tallest North American bird with a height of 5 feet and a 7-8 foot wingspan. It was named for its whooping sound. At one time, the range for these birds extended throughout North America. Currently, there are only about 400 left in the wild and 165 in captivity. In 1941, the cranes nearly went extinct, dwindling to only 15 birds. The whooping crane was listed as an endangered species in 1967, primarily due to habitat loss. Whooping cranes are also still illegally shot.
One Eastern flyway disappeared in the late 1800's, when the last whooping cranes flying that route died off. Operation Migration is a conservation organization trying to re-introduce a flyway east of the Mississippi river. The organization is part of a U.S./Canada, public/private group striving to reestablish migrating flocks of whooping cranes. Since there were no birds still flying the route, conservationists had to show young cranes how to make the journey by demonstrating with planes. This method of re-establishing migration routes was pioneered by Bill Lishman and Joe Duff when they led Canada Geese in migration from Ontario, Canada, to Virginia and South Carolina in 1993. This reintroduction began in fall 2001 and has added birds to the population in each subsequent year, except in early 2007, when a disastrous storm killed all of the 2006 yearlings after their arrival in Florida.
The whooping cranes are bred at a wildlife center in Maryland. Biologists feed and imprint the fledglings to recognize the brood call via a taped recording and to imprint on the sound of a small plane engine. The young cranes are then fledged in a wildlife refuge in Wisconsin where they await their journey in the fall. The cranes follow behind the ultralight plane, riding the wake created by the plane’s wings. The pilots wear a fake bird beak on their arms to give the cranes the comforting idea that the plane is indeed one of them. The planes fly only about 40mph, slowly enough for the cranes to keep up with the pace. In the spring, the birds fly back to Wisconsin on their own, having learned the migratory route.
Operation Migration voluntarily grounded the ultralight plane and cranes to work with the FAA
FAA notified Operation Migration’s pilots in late November that the agency had opened an investigation. FAA’s concern is in part that it doesn’t want to encourage other uses of ultralight aircraft that may be risky. In late December, Operation Migration voluntarily grounded the plane and the birds in Alabama. 1,400 people have signed an online petition asking that the flight be allowed to continue. Had the FAA not granted the organization the waiver, Operation Migration would have been forced to move the birds via ground transport.
Operation Migration Needs Your Help
The flyway is beginning to grow on its own. Three birds born in the wild joined the migration this year. These wild hatched birds were the first on record to make the migration since 1878. The Operation Migration program is very expensive and the legal fees needing to deal with the FAA wavier didn’t help. Operation Migration welcomes donations to help with the migration and provides updates on the where the whooping cranes are along their route on their websitewebsite. If you have ever seen a whooping crane, they are majestic birds that one can’t want to help continue on their winter journey to warmer marshes.