Why Not Truck the Birds on No-fly Days?
By Joe Duff

Photo Bev Paulan

When weather delays add up, do you wonder why the team doesn't just put the birds in crates and truck them to the next stop? See what Operation Migration pilot Joe Duff says:

Cranes Must Be Taught Their Migration Route
With many species the idea of trucking them to the next stop would work perfectly. Pigeons have a homing instinct that is almost infallible, and other birds seem to know their migration route through some sort of genetic instinct. But it is apparent that at least geese, swans and cranes learn it by following their parents. As surrogates [substitute parents], we pilots assume that responsibility.

How Cranes Navigate
It is my belief, based strictly on my own observations, that our birds need to experience the migration first hand. We know from earlier work that landmarks do not play a critical role in their ability to navigate, but the method they use is still a mystery. Likely it is a combination of factors with no one guidance system that reliably gets them back. Unlike humans they are not subjected to artificial stimulants that remove us from our environment. They don’t ride in cars or live in buildings. Once they are transported [before they can fly] to Wisconsin, they spend their entire lives outdoors. They see the sun rise every day from the same direction and they only move under their own steam. It seems to me this would give them a better sense of direction than ours.

Breaking the Chain of Knowledge
Maybe it’s as simple as that; they know where they are because they got there themselves and that chain of knowledge is broken when they are put in crates and transported somewhere unfamiliar.

When Boxes Help
At times we have been forced to transport birds in crates to the next stopover. Fatigue may cause them to drop out, or some unexplained reluctance keeps one or more of them from leaving the pen with the rest of the birds. That happened at the beginning of the 2006 migration. On each migration some of the birds make the entire trip and the others have only missed a leg or a few sections. During the return journey they often fly as a group, and maybe their combined knowledge is what gets them home.

2014: A Bold Plan for a Big Challenge
On the 2014 migration, we had a real learning opportunity. With only 52 miles gained in 34 days and a grim weather forecast in Wisconsin, the team made a bold plan. We boxed the birds on November 13 and drove them 600 miles to Tennessee to resume migration flights. Different weather patterns on the southern half of the migration route usually speed the migration along. We worried and wondered: Once they migrate next spring back to where they were unloaded from the long drive, would they instinctively fly due north the rest of the way? Or would they join up there with older cranes and follow them? five crane-kids failed to find their way home after an older crane serving as their "leader" 5-12 left them on April 7, and the team decided it was time to jump in. These birds were later captured, loaded into the tracking van and driven to Wisconsin throughout the night when they would normally be roosting quietly anyway. Then we had to wait and see: How would they do on their first unaided journey south in fall 2015? [Details about each of the Class of 2014's first unaided migrations are on the birds' bio pages.]

What Works, What Doesn't
We do know that while taking them south in crates does not work, leading them there does. We are not prepared to risk their ability to migrate, simply because we have been stuck for days with un-flyable weather. This project is not about the people on the team — it's about the birds.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).