Since 2001, Operation Migration has been reintroducing endangered Whooping Cranes into North America. The birds are raised by costumed handlers with puppets and taught to follow an ultralight aircraft on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida. The birds then return on their own the following year in Spring.
Operation Migration’s story begins in 1988 when Bill Lishman made history by becoming the first human to fly with birds. Then in 1993, Bill and long time friend Joseph Duff conducted the first ever human led bird migration of 18 Canada Geese from Ontario to Virginia. The success of this trip, was the driving force behind the creation of Operation Migration in 1994.
Since then Operation Migration has successfully led migrations of Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes and now Whooping Cranes. You can follow along on their epic journeys by reading their Field Journal which updated daily.
Operation Migration relies on the principal of imprinting to get the birds to follow their ultralight aircraft. Imprinting basically means that the little baby birds trust and follow the first suitable moving stimulus they see after hatching. It’s very important that the birds do not become imprinted on humans. So handlers are dressed in costume and use puppets.
While the eggs are in the incubator, recorded sounds of the ultralight aircraft engine are played. Shortly after the birds hatch, they see a Whooping Crane mother puppet.
Before the young chicks can learn to migrate, they first must learn the basics like how to eat and drink. Handlers teach them using these puppets.
When the birds are strong enough, they meet the ultralight aircraft for the very first time.
Eventually, the chicks are led to a circle pen where they begin their training sessions. They are taught to follow the aircraft as it moves around the pen. The chicks hear the sound of the aircraft’s engine and the calls of Whooping Cranes. This helps the birds get used to noise of the ultralight. As encouragement, the pilot can dispense tasty meal worms from the puppet’s head.
As the young birds mature, they develop flight feathers and get stronger. They exercise by following the ultralight, flapping and stretching their wings. Soon the birds are off on their very first flight!
The birds continue flying exercises, building strength and endurance for the coming migration.
In Autumn, the birds begin their journey south behind Operation Migration’s ultralight. I’m sure it’s got to be tough for the handlers to see the birds leave. I’m only watching the video and I get a little choked up!
Operation Migration is a nonprofit organization that relies heavily on your support. There are a number of ways you can contribute to their efforts. Visit the Operation Migration Contribute page to learn more about making a donation and becoming a member.
There is an annual MileMaker program where you can sponsor a specific mile of their journey. They determine the cost of the mile by dividing the total migration expenses by the number of miles to be flown.
They also have a great selection of merchandise you can purchase in the Operation Migration online store. All proceeds help fund their important work.