What's that saying about leading a horse to water? The latest effort to teach Maryland-bred whooping crane chicks to migrate to Florida for the winter has been called off because the endangered birds will no longer follow the ultralight aircraft leading them.
Operation Migration, the nonprofit group that's been guiding captive-bred young cranes for a decade on their initial 1,300-mile flight from nesting grounds in Wisconsin, has called it quits this year in Alabama, 500 miles short of the destination. While previous flights haven't gone smoothly, either, this is the first time the group hasn't succeeded in ultimately completing the journey to join the rest of the whooping crane flock wintering on the Gulf coast of Florida.
The flight had been grounded for a month in northern Alabama around the holidays as the group sparred with the Federal Aviation Administration over whether its ultralight pilots were properly licensed. The FAA eventually relented and granted them temporary waivers to continue, but in the two weeks since the birds have only covered 14 miles. Weather was partly to blame, but even when skies were clear and calm, the birds repeatedly broke away from their ultralight guides to land or fly off in different directions.
"Maybe we have stayed too long in Alabama and for them migration is over," ultralight pilot Joe Duff wrote in the group's online field journal chronicling its odyssey. "Or, maybe they were just too long in one place. Maybe if we had a few flying days in a row to gain back their confidence, or maybe we just have a few too many aggressive birds with minds of their own."
Could unusually mild weather this winter have prompted the birds to lose their migratory urge? The group's blog contains a comment from a biologist in Indiana that a number of cranes, both whoopers and non-endangered sandhills, had flown no farther south than the Hoosier state this winter, where the grass has stayed green and the ground unfrozen.
I wrote a story last month about the captive whooping crane breeding operation at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, where these chicks were hatched and taught to follow crane-costumed humans piloting an ultralight aircraft. They're then transported to Wisconsin, their future nesting grounds once they've returned from wintering down south.
At the time of my story , Patuxent scientist John B. French told me biologists weren't sure what would happen with these chicks if they didn't make it to Florida. Might they imprint on Alabama, or ultimately join the rest of the eastern flock in shuttling between Wisconsin and Florida? If they stuck with Alabama, how would such a small group of about 10 birds fare on their own?
For now, at least, Operation Migration has decided to load the chicks into crates and drive them to a nearby national wildlife refuge in Alabama rather than try to get them to Florida. It would be too stressful to keep them cooped up for that long a ride, it was believed.
So on Saturday the whooper chicks will go by truck about 45 miles northeast to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (no relation that I know of), where they'll ultimately be released into the wild to spend the rest of the winter. Maybe it'll work out okay after all. Operation Migration's field journal notes that two pairs of adult whooping cranes have been sighted there.