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Memorial Tribute to the 2006 Whooping Crane Chicks
By Margaret Black
Orillia, Ontario

On the night of February 1st/2nd, 2007, tragedy struck the ultralight-led "Class of 2006" Whooping Cranes. Just weeks after they arrived at the winter pen, a severe storm raged across central Florida, killing twenty people, destroying 1,500 homes... and killing all but one of the eighteen birds we had tracked all fall. During the week following the chicks' deaths, our class was involved in a multi-faceted grief management program. The following describes what we did...

Life Lessons (a.k.a.. Grief Management Principles)
From Margaret Black’s Class at Harriett Todd Public School

1. Empathy I painted, for students, a picture of the larger context in which our loss occurred. I told my students that this was not just about our cranes; that 20 people died and 400+ homes were destroyed by the same storm that claimed the lives of our beloved birds. I told the students that we needed to feel empathy for each other and for those who have lost even more than we did, in the storm.

Map: Mary Hosier

2. OutreachFrom the very beginning, I taught my students that we need to comfort others, even when we are in the midst of pain. I never let my students simply wallow in their own grief. I asked them to support classmates who were hurting. I also asked them to reach out and comfort our "extended family" at Operation Migration, who lost not only their 2006 "babies" but also a year of their work, and who were very concerned about how this loss was going to affect all the children.

3. Balance — There were two aspects to this life lesson:
(a) I taught the children that we need to take time to grieve, but we also need to carry on with our work. We can't just sit around feeling sad all day. We spent an hour and a half, on each of the first two days back at school, talking about what happened, crying over, and making cards for our cranes.* After our morning grief sessions, we always returned to routine for the remainder of the day. On the Wednesday and Thursday, immediately following the cranes' deaths, we didn't do any grief work. We just carried on with routine and let things settle. By the Friday, I felt students were ready to refocus on the positive, so we revisited the cranes, for the purpose of celebrating what we loved most about our migration project and the fact that 615 is still alive.

Missing: Joe Duff, Project Leader
Photo Operation Migration.

(b) I taught the children that it is possible to be sad and happy, at the same time.
On the Friday, even though students were still hurting over the loss of their cranes, we taped a video about how much we enjoyed our project, to send to the team at Operation Migration. After we finished taping our video, we watched the NBC TVnews footage, from the previous Sunday, announcing that 615 was still alive. Some of my students had a hard time watching the segment, which I had told them was a "good news" story, because it mentioned that seventeen cranes had died. To enable students to find balance, and see the good in the NBC story, I talked about Operation Migration field workers, Bev and Brooke, who appeared in the piece embracing with joy over the fact that one of their eighteen birds had escaped death. I explained to the children that Bev and Brooke were in great mourning when the NBC segment was taped because, just two days previously, they had been told that all the birds their team had worked with, over the past ten months, had died. I asked my students to follow Bev's and Brooke’s examples by embracing 615, in spite of their continuing sadness.

4. Action — There were two aspects to this life lesson:
(a) I taught the children to express their feelings in a variety of ways.

I gave my students not only an opportunity to talk, cry and be reflective, but also to express their grief through writing, art and symbolic acts, like attaching a tag with his/her bird’s number to the stem of a flower, and placing that flower in a vase. (Photo at top)


On the day we celebrated 615’s miraculous escape from death, everyone in the class made Valentine cards for him. We displayed the cards under a banner in our classroom that used to read, "THEY MADE IT!" (to Florida in December), and which we altered this week to exclaim, "HE MADE IT!" (through the storm).

(b) I taught my students to turn tragedy into good, by doing something concrete, in memory of their chicks.

To me, the goal of the grief process is not to "get over" something. To me, the goal is to allow tragedy to become a catalyst for personal growth and change. As an extension of this principle, in the case of death, I also think it is important to find ways to bring good out of tragedy, by continuing the legacy of the deceased, on his/her behalf.

My students and I contributed to the fund that Operation Migration created, in honour of the cranes. We made cards and letters for Operation Migration and, as previously mentioned, we also made a video tape, for them, in which students explained what they loved most about the migration monitoring project. Finally, we resolved not to let this tragedy keep us from supporting the Whooping Crane reintroduction effort. When, during the taping of our video, I asked the students if they would like to participate in monitoring future ultralight-led migrations, the answer was unanimous. In spite of the grief, every single student said he/she would love to participate in this type of project all over again!

Epilogue: At the end of the week, my students surprised me by teaching me what it is to be gracious. Students who had experienced the loss of "their birds” decided to give 615's Valentine cards to the one student who didn't lose his bird in this tragedy... to the boy who had adopted 615, and cheered him along throughout the migration. Some of the students even congratulated this young man, on his great fortune. (In retrospect, I now realize that envy and animosity never did raise their ugly heads, this week. That is partly due to the fact that 615's "cheerleader" remained quiet and empathic all week... but I also have to give credit to my other students for simply choosing not to go there!)

Click to enlarge Amelia's letter to Mrs. Black.

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