Teaching Cranes to Migrate
Contributed by Tom Stehn, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

November 3, 1997
I just got back from the time of my life, traveling as a member of the ground crew along with Kent Clegg and his Ultralight aircraft," reports Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. "Kent and the Ultralight escorted 4 Whooping Cranes and 8 Sandhill Cranes all the way from Grace, Idaho to Bosque de la Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico! This was just like in the movie' Fly Away Home. The only difference was that instead of flying with Canada Geese, Ultralight pilot Kent Clegg was flying with Cranes!

"I traveled with the Cranes for the entire 9-day Ultralight mission as part of a six-man ground crew. I watched Kent play the part of the Crane chicks' father. The young chicks learned Kent's voice and followed him wherever he went. Kent would normally fly with the birds for about 2 hours early in the morning, and then let the birds rest for half a day. Often, a shorter, one-hour flight was made just before sunset.

"My job was to care for the birds and set up portable pens wherever they landed. Enclosures were needed to keep predators away from the tame Cranes. We fed them a little corn during their daytime rest, but not too much or they wouldn't want to fly. During migration, Cranes don't normally eat very much and live off stored fat reserves. It was absolutely amazing to watch the Cranes run out of their pens and take flight at the same time Kent, in the Ultralight, taxied down the runway, preparing for take off.

"All four Whoopers in the Ultralight mission made the trip all the way to the new destination at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Sadly, one of the Sandhill Cranes died en route after colliding with the Ultralight plane. One of the Whooping Cranes was also badly injured when attacked and knocked from the air by a Golden Eagle. Even though a second airplane flew behind Kent to chase off eagles, this one bird slipped through our air defenses. I, and the rest of the ground crew, rushed out to the injured Crane, cut a sock in half for a bandage to stop the bleeding, and rushed it to a nearby veterinarian. Stitches were needed to close two long punctures in the crane's thigh made by the eagle's talons. The injured Whooping Crane got to ride the rest of the way to Bosque in the back of a trailer and seems to have recovered nicely."

NOTE: These Whoopers are not of the wild flock Tom has so carefully watched over since 1982. They were hatched and reared at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, located in Laurel, Maryland. When they were only 20 days old, the chicks were flown all the way from Maryland to a large cattle ranch in Grace, Idaho. The ranch is owned by Kent Clegg who has had a longtime love of Whooping and Sandhill Cranes.

Kent has been interested in learning new ways to help build the population of Whooping Cranes in North America. His hope and prediction:

If the Whooping Cranes could be taught to migrate to other areas, perhaps new populations of Cranes could begin to establish themselves in these areas.

So, he wanted to see if Whoopers could indeed be taught to migrate to areas besides Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, their traditional winteringing grounds. Similar to building the population of Trumpeter Swans, establishing new populations of Whoopers could be a way to increase the their overall population.