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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 Necedah NWR, 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’' 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. If we trucked them to the far side of the ridge they would have no awareness of the mountains and maybe they could be pushed off course when they encounter that obstacle on the way back.

When Boxes Help
On occasion 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 them from leaving the pen with the rest of the birds. In fact that happened at the beginning of the 2006 migration. But we have never been in a situation where all the birds missed a complete section of the 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 fly as a group, and maybe their combined knowledge is what gets them home.

What Works, What Doesn't
All of this is speculation. But we do know that while taking them south in crates does not work, leading them there does. How far we can transport them remains to be seen, but after investing this much money and effort to get them this far we are not prepared to risk their ability to migrate, simply because we have been stuck for a week. This is not about us —it's about the birds.

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

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