At a remote refuge in Wisconsin, pilots are training 10 young whooping cranes for a 1,200-mile flight to Florida this fall. If all goes well, it will be a giant step toward taking the whooping crane off the Endangered Species List.
Today, only one small flock of wild, migrating whooping cranes is left in the world. Around 190 of the birds winter along the Texas coast and summer in Canada's northwest territory. But if disease or some other disaster wiped them out, that could spell doom for the species.
So scientists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others working to save the whooping crane hope to establish a second, geographically separate flock with its own migration route.
Last fall, Joe Duff, one of the pilots who pioneered human-led bird migrations, helped lead a flock of sandhill cranes, a much more common, non-endangered crane species, from the Necedah National Wildlife refuge in Wisconsin to a refuge in Florida.
Last spring, the sandhills returned to Necedah on their own. Now, Duff is confident whooping cranes can be taught to make the same journey.
"There's an attitude that takes place in all birds we've ever flown with, that once migration starts, they seem to lock in, they seem to get the understanding, they seem to know what's happening," Duff says.
The 10 baby whooping cranes who will attempt the long flight were hatched this spring from the eggs of a small captive flock in Maryland.
In all their short lives, the baby cranes have never heard a human voice or seen a human being that wasn't dressed in a crane costume.
The first thing the chicks saw upon hatching were a crane puppet and an ultra-light plane. Ever since then, they've been at the center of an elaborate hoax to convince them that the ultra-light and handlers dressed in crane costumes are their parents.
In July, the young chicks were put in cardboard boxes and flown in a private plane to the Necedah refuge, where they are now learning to fly.
Today, Kelly Maguire, one of the young cranes' handlers, holds a puppet with a slender neck, long black beak and white head topped with scarlet. It's a life-sized replica of the head of an adult whooping crane.
She dons a billowing white robe with a hood that hides her own head. She's hidden behind a ridge, out of sight and hearing of the young cranes.
"If they connect to humans, then we're in trouble, because they're going to be seeking the company of humans."
This part of the refuge is closed to the public. Reporters can watch the training only from a camouflaged bunker built into the ridge and approached from behind, so the young cranes never see or hear them.
As Maguire and another costumed handler walk around the ridge toward a covered, camouflaged pen where the young cranes are held, a white, v-shaped wing descends. The ultra-light plane, piloted by Duff in a crane costume, lands on a grassy runway.
A hollow, frog-like croaking sounds above the buzz of the ultra-light. It's a tape recording of a parent crane calling its chicks; Duff plays it whenever he wants to call them to the plane.
The handlers open the pen, the ultra-light takes off, and the gawky, long-legged chicks flap awkwardly after it. They run almost on tiptoe, making short hops, before one bird manages to get aloft and follow the plane for a few dozen yards before dropping away and landing in the marsh.
With the handlers in their flowing costumes, the scene looks like a surreal puppet play. It will be repeated day after day, until the chicks can make longer and longer flights.
Duff doesn't downplay the difficulty of the long journey ahead, but he says the main thing he worries about is that the cranes never realize there are humans inside the costumes.
"That costume is a source of security," he says. "It's a source of food, it's a source of camaraderie. And if they connect that to humans, then we're in trouble, because they're going to be seeking the company of humans."
That happened in an earlier ultra-light migration with sandhill cranes in 1997.
"Our techniques weren't as highly developed. We wore costumes but talked in front of the birds," Duff recalls. "The birds [on their return migration] landed at schoolyards and golf courses and pick-your-own strawberry farms, and frequented baseball games."
The cranes, which stand five feet tall and have sharp beaks, had to be removed from the flyway because of the danger to themselves and to humans.
"You can imagine a bunch of four-foot-high kids, and a bunch of five-foot-high birds," Duff says.
With the whooping cranes, one of the world's rarest birds, it's essential that doesn't happen.
For the rest of the summer, Duff and the others will teach the cranes to make longer and longer flights and to recognize the wildlife refuge from the air.
This fall, they'll guide them on the 40-day trip to a Florida refuge. There, the team will gradually withdraw, leaving the cranes to live as wild birds and find their own way back to the Necedah refuge next spring.
If they do, in coming years they could breed and spread to Wisconsin marshes that haven't been home to whooping cranes for more than a century.
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