A fond farewell to the whoopers
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002
No one who has followed this month's amazing migration of five whooping cranes from Florida to Wisconsin will ever use the word "birdbrain" as a derogatory term.
This was not the run-of-the-mill miracle of migration that millions of birds complete like clockwork twice a year. The small flock of endangered whooping cranes was raised by researchers at Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Last fall, eight cranes were led south, to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, by an ultralight disguised as a crane. The first half of the experiment went reasonably well. One bird died en route, and two were killed by predators in Florida, but the other five thrived in their new winter home.
Then, on April 10, in response to some inner clock in their genes, the five remaining cranes headed north, back to their summer home in Wisconsin. One crane fell out of formation, but all five stayed unerringly on the path home, even though they never had parents to show them the way.
The round-trip migration has thrilled scientists working to establish a larger migratory flock of whooping cranes based in Wisconsin and Florida. The graceful birds, threatened with extinction for decades, also have brought great emotional and aesthetic pleasure to millions of humans whose paths they have crossed during their long journey.
Other birds may not be all that impressed with the whoopers. After all, many of them regularly perform their own migratory feats, without the help of an ultralight. Consider Whitetail the champion homing pigeon, who disappeared during a 1997 France-to-England race -- and turned up at his Manchester loft the other day after a five-year absence. "Whitetail is the best pigeon I've ever had," said his keeper, Tom Roden.
So the cranes may just be doing what comes naturally, but Floridians are as proud of them as Roden is of his prodigal pigeon. We look forward to seeing them again next fall. May their flock multiply in the meantime.
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