Whooping Crane Whooping Crane
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Sandhills Return: Migration Experiment a Success!


Date: May 1, 2001
Operation Migration Headquarters

Photo Operation Migration, Inc.
Last Friday, April 27th, 2001 a flock of Sandhill cranes, all wearing radio transmitters descended upon the grass strip they had trained on during last year's field season.

Sandhill cranes are ancient creatures. Fossil evidence indicates that these birds have existed relatively unchanged for nine million years. They have witnessed the freeze and thaw of myriad ice ages and survived the coming of mankind. For nine thousand millennia they may have moved north and south with the changing seasons passing the knowledge of migration from one generation to the next. With such well developed instincts, the return of the birds we led south should not be surprising, yet we marvel at the incredibility of a journey that in the avian world is commonplace.

Dr. Richard Urbanek had intended to track these birds north but their departure came without notice and took him by surprise. The radio transmitters they carry have a range of 15 miles on a good day, making a search of the 1250 miles between Wisconsin and Florida impractical. We pondered and speculated and held meetings to discuss our options; we checked all the known staging areas where wild birds gather and kept a listening watch at the northern terminus. For 62 days they remained at large, practicing their wildness and avoided humans while we used terms like "missing" and "unaccounted for."

Much more exciting than their predictable return is their apparent wildness. When Dr. Urbanek picked up the signal in central Wisconsin he tracked them north and eventually into the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. He drove to the training area where they first learned to fly and before he realized it they took off, alarmed at his presence. Twice that same afternoon the birds were flushed into the air by the approach of humans proving their wariness and validating our methods.

The appropriate behaviour of these birds and their unaided return is timely. It coincides with the close of the public hearings that will assist the U.S. Department of the Interior in its decision to let the reintroduction proceed. It is the "icing on the cake," the "I told you so" that makes us proud of our extra effort. This happy ending will help generate the public support that is so important, allowing us to make the long-term commitment to safeguarding Whooping cranes.

Read highlights from the Operation Migration daily log here:An Aircraft-Led Migration: Dress Rehearsal For Reintroduction or read the entire journal on Operation Migration's site.

Discussion/Journaling Questions
1. What do you think some differences and new challenges might be for this migration experiment when it is performed with Whooping cranes, a highly endangered species?
2. If you'd been part of the team that led the sandhill cranes to Florida, how would you have felt upon learning they'd returned on their own to Wisconsin?
3. Ultralight airplanes weigh only 300 pounds. They seem like little more than a motorcycle with a hang-glider wing attached. Why do you think the Operation Migration pilots were so willing to fly such a plane and lead the cranes on migration? What might have been some of the risks involved?

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