In 1978 an old television show called Fantasy Island, a character named Tatoo, came running on camera, peeping in his small French accented voice, “Ze plane, ze plane!” At that time, an estimated one hundred or so wild Whooping Cranes were still very much on the edge of extinction in North American. Certainly, none of them ever arrived via airplane. They summered in northern Canada where they bred, fledged their young and migrated 2,600 miles to wintering grounds on the coast of Texas.
That meager flock of Whooping Cranes were the sole descendants of the last 15 wild Whooping Cranes still alive in 1940. Extinction was possible, where they would only be available as museum mounts, paintings, photographs, and romantic stories of how the largest remaining bird on this continent disappeared from the horizon on our watch. These amazing great white cranes slowly increased in number, and now labelled the Western Migratory Population they are the lone genetic lineage for all Whooping Cranes. Whooper’s bond for life and generally produce only one chick that lives. Reproduction rates are low and after more than 70 years the western population still numbers less than 300 birds.
Hoping to maintain a species comes with knowledge that a single event, an oil spill, hurricane, or a drought causing a lack of fresh water on the Texas wintering grounds could create a life-threatening disaster for this flock. They face new problems from oil-sands, pipelines, and potential wind energy fields on the migration route. And we cry for the yearly birds killed by hunters, those by accident, or worse, by intent and cruelty.
A little over a decade ago, a second backup group of Whooping Cranes was considered for introduction. However, there were no native birds in the eastern United States. This flock was going to be developed from captive birds. They would have no migratory patterns learned from previous generations passed down for millions of years by parents to their fledglings. Humans would need to intervene, but humans raising wild birds doesn’t work. Birds imprint on the first thing they set their eyes on. If it’s a human the bird will grow up and never learn how to be a bird. An entirely new science was going to be put to use, joining several different research groups with one goal.
Whooping Cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population are genetic offspring of the western flock, however, these eggs came from monitored Whooping Cranes via careful selection to maintain diversity. All of the eggs were hatched under careful monitoring and supervision, and when grown the birds were then reintroduced into the wild to form a second flock migrating between Wisconsin and Florida. Different methods of raising chicks at several locations in Wisconsin are being used. Only one is monitored for the public to view via computer thanks to Operation Migration.org.
In a few days, similar words to Tatoo’s greeting will be on the lips and tips of many chat room fingers. They are a dedicated group of Whooping Crane fans, old and new friends, known affectionately as Craniacs. Daily, for approximately six months they sit in front of their computer monitors, laptops and smartphones to watch the morning and evening antics, routines, growth spurs, and comedic errors of a yearly clutch of endangered Whooping Crane chicks in central Wisconsin. These birds, under the skillful hands of an organization named Operation Migration.org will raise these birds this summer, flight train them, and this autumn lead them behind a UltraLite aircraft skillfully imprinted as a parent bird teaching them the migratory route between Wisconsin and Florida. Next spring, a miracle happens when the birds return to Wisconsin using their own remarkable instincts.
The chicks hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland where they undergo physical testing that would undermine a candidate for the Navy Seals. Their personalities are testing to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. Some tolerance is allowed for chicks to establish a pecking order, as long as they don’t actually continue to nit-peck like a wife that discovered mouse breath on her husband who said he was working late at the office. After a class is chosen they’re allowed to attend a mixer and see who wants to dance and who’s going to become the wallflower. Of course, someone always trips over their own feet, another peeps and runs, one takes a firm hock sit and won’t be moved, and the sudden bully chases all the other kids around the block. Only the block is round and heavily supervised by people who look like Casper, the friendly ghost with a misplaced appendage – a single wooden crane-like head where a hand would be..
Crane chicks are never allowed to visually come into contact with humans during the nearly year-long training process. With clever manipulations and puppetry the birds own genetic code will imprint onto puppetry and even lite aircraft substituting as parents. It allows the Whooping Cranes to remain wild. Rules number one through one hundred! All humans attending to Whooping Crane chicks for any purpose present in costumes aka ‘tumes’. Imagine a construction helmet and black muck boots, covered in a hybrid of your grandmother’s white sheets drying in the summer sun and a half-blinded person wearing a backward burka in 100 degree heat while all the juicy bugs of summer jump up your petticoat.
Gotta love the dedicated Whooping Crane people. The same crew training in Maryland with the eight chosen finalists will soon be moved to Wisconsin to begin phase two of the training program. But first the chicks are gently backed into standing crates and loaded onto a private airplane where they will receive first class attention on their flight over. Sorry, no reclining seats, headphones, movies, or mixed drinks allowed for the birds and crew. The Craniac’s are free to celebrate the impending arrival of the new kids on the block in any manner they choose. Virtual parties are probably already being planned. Tissues are being stockpiles by laptops, vacation days planned, people will be calling in late, this will be a cheers and tears celebration.
ETA, July 9, 2013, 1 pm CST at
Operation Migration Whooping Crane Cam