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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Follow the Leader

Air Date: Week of

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Scientists flying ultra-light aircraft are leading endangered whooping cranes on a new migration route this fall. Host Steve Curwood talks with Operation Migration's Joe Duff about how he'll lead the birds from Wisconsin to Florida.


CURWOOD: This fall, nine endangered whooping cranes and a couple of ultra-light planes are making history. With the planes leading the way, they are migrating as a flock south, from Wisconsin to Florida. There are no wild whoopers left who migrate this eastern route, but scientists hope that these young birds will remedy that, once they've been taught the flight map.

Joining me now is Ichabod Crane, no?

DUFF: That's the name of my aircraft, actually.

CURWOOD: That's the name of your plane. But your name is Joe Duff, right?

DUFF: That's right.

CURWOOD: And you're the lead pilot in this migration.

DUFF: I am.

CURWOOD: I understand that you and your colleagues make this entire journey in costume. Can you describe the disguise that everyone wears when you're interacting with these whooping cranes?

DUFF: You named it right, it is a disguise. We're not trying to look like birds, we're actually trying to disguise the human form, and we wear a big bag. It's made of cotton, it covers our arms and goes down to mid-calf, and it's got a drawstring at the bottom and kind of turtle neck collar. And then we have a head gear thing, it's a veil that's built over a baseball type cap, so it covers the head, too. And then we have little visors that we look through, so the birds can't see anything of the human form. And it's also very baggy, so it kind of disguises the form.

CURWOOD: So let me see if I have this right. The idea really isn't so much, obviously, to look like a whooping crane as it is to not look human, but why are these costumes necessary?

DUFF: Well, the thing is that if you mis-imprint a crane, any kind of crane, really, on humans, you can run into trouble. They look to humans as a source of food and they want to associate with humans once they're released, and you can imagine, a whooping crane is 5 and a half feet tall and they can be quite aggressive. Also, if you mis-imprint a whooping crane on humans, when it comes breeding time for these birds, when they're 5 to 8 years old, they can either look at you with admiration, or figure you're a competitor. So they can be quite aggressive.

CURWOOD: So you're not interested in having one of these whooping cranes fall in love with you.

DUFF: No, I don't think so, and it's not good for the bird, either.

CURWOOD: Walk me – or I guess I should probably say fly me – through a day of migration. You wake up in the morning, and what happens next?

DUFF: Well, we start before sunrise and the first thing is a weather check. We eventually get our costumes on and get in the aircraft and taxi down to where the pen is kept, and that's kept away from all buildings and away from any human activity and paraphernalia. And then a biologist releases the birds and we take off. The birds follow the aircraft because they've been conditioned to it since hatching, and we also use digitally recorded adult crane calls on the aircraft that we can broadcast, so that they're familiar with those, too, and they follow it.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering now, as we look ahead to next spring when it's time for these cranes to head back north again, how involved will you be in that migration back to Wisconsin?

DUFF: We’ll do nothing except sit at home and watch the computer and track them by satellite device.

CURWOOD: Well, wait a second.

DUFF: It's a one-way migration that birds learn. The need to migrate is genetically pre-programmed into these birds, but the direction and the destination is taught by the parent, on a one-way trip. See, the thing is, a migration route may have existed for millions of years and been passed from one generation to the next. That migration was lost with the last bird that used it. And we teach it, these birds the migration, it exists in their memory only, and they hopefully will teach their offspring and now it goes, we've started a new migration.

CURWOOD: Joe Duff is one of the pilots leading a group of nine endangered whooping cranes on their migration south this fall. He's also a co-direction of Operation Migration. Thanks for taking this time with, Mr. Duff.

DUFF: Thank you very much.




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