Why Such Short Daily Flights?
Excerpt Journal of Ultralight Pilot Joe Duff

Joe Duff, Operation Migration Project Leader

Our daily migration legs may only last an hour or two and might cover as little as 40 miles at a time. Why?

Our journeys are small compared to the daily flights of wild birds. Normally cranes migrate during midday when the sun's heat is the strongest and creates thermals (rising columns or updrafts of warm air). The cranes soar and coast on these "elevators" like hawks or eagles, seldom flapping their wings. Under good conditions they can stay aloft for hours, covering hundreds of miles with little effort.

Ultralights Don't Fly Like Cranes

We are not able to fly the way cranes do. Behind the ultralights, birds must flap their wings to stay aloft—expending more energy and limiting the cranes to relatively short distances each day. Instead of using thermals like wild birds, our captive-bred birds learn to use the wing of the aircraft and the wake of air it creates to "surf" through the sky and ease their workload. This can only happen when the air is smooth and the wing remains stable. If we meet turbulence and the wing begins to bounce around, the birds must move away and follow from a safe distance. When this happens they are forced to flap-fly, and they soon get tired.

Timing is Everything
Our flights are limited to early morning, when the air is usually calmer. This helps prevent cranes from soaring away on thermals—and getting lost.That's also when cooler temperatures keep the birds from overheating.

Instinct Takes Over
Once these cranes are free and on their own, they will instinctively fly like wild birds. They will use thermals when they make their way north in spring and for all their future migrations.

Try This! Journal or Discussion Questions
  • Why are ultralight flights short compared to the distance wild birds can travel?
  • Scan the second paragraph of Joe's entry above and pick out one sentence that tells the main idea of the paragraph.
  • Joe is Canadian, so a few words are spelled the Canadian way. Can you find two examples of Canadian spellings?
  • The successful journey south of the ultralight-led Sandhill cranes was an example of instruction and instinct combined. Explain what that means.


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