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For trainers, large flock delights

Operation Migration staffers are excited - and kept busy - by this year's bumper crop of whooping crane chicks.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published June 12, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - A bumper crop of whooping crane chicks destined to make their maiden migration to Central Florida this year have been keeping their handlers especially busy this spring.

As of last week, 22 chicks have hatched and begun training for their ultralight-led migration at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

In a few weeks, the first batch of chicks will be flown to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for final training for the fall migration.

Another eight to 10 hatchlings are expected to become "direct autumn release'' birds - chicks that are introduced to adult cranes and are expected to learn the migration path from those older birds.

This year's training has been more hectic than usual, partly because of the large number of chicks. Also, a winter storm damaged enclosures in Patuxent, setting the breeding season back a few weeks.

That meant that eggs laid in Maryland were laid later than usual. Eggs also come to Patuxent for hatching from locations further north, usually weeks later.

But this year they all came at about the same time.

Last year there was a 46-day gap between the youngest and oldest chicks, but this year there is just a 27-day gap.

And there is much to do in the early days of a rare whooping crane's life.

"They are in so many different stages,'' said Chris Danilko, office manager for Operation Migration. "It's like having a set of quadruplets just born and another set in the terrible twos."

Soon after hatching, the crane chicks begin their training. The sound of the ultralight has been a part of their world since they were in the egg. But teaching them to follow the mechanical flying machine means hours and hours of drilling and piles of tasty mealworms serving as bribes.

Before they fly, the chicks are crated and taken to the Necedah refuge for final training. The birds migrate back to the location they first see from the air.

Training also involves socializing the animals. Whooping cranes are solitary and do not stay in flocks like the more common sandhill cranes.

Some birds are more social than others, said Operation Migration pilot Joe Duff. He recalled a crane from several years ago that did not get along with one of the handlers. Duff had to step in a couple of times to separate the two.

Two of the chicks in this year's group hatched from eggs laid by birds from previous ultralight-led migrations.

Several pairs of cranes nested and laid eggs this year, but most abandoned the nests or left when predators arrived. All were lost except the two taken from the abandoned nest.

But one set of cranes nested again after losing its eggs, and Operation Migration officials are hopeful that, for the first time, the second generation of cranes can be born in the wild and learn the migration route from their parents.

"That would be the ultimate proof in the pudding," Duff said.

He said he is very hopeful for this year's migration since eggs for the so-called Class of 2006 came from several groups and should be more genetically diverse.

That diversity is especially important for the survival of any animal as rare as whooping cranes.

In the 1940s, only 15 of the rare cranes existed.

Now there are 470 birds, including those in captivity and in three separate wild flocks. Of those, 64 wild birds are part of the Wisconsin-to-Florida migratory flock trained behind ultralights over the past five years.

For Duff, this time of year is the time to focus on fundraising.

Annually, Operation Migration spends about $500,000 to make the migration happen. Add in the work of the other partners in the crane project, and the cost rises to about $1.2-million.

With such a small staff, big fundraisers aren't possible. This past year, Duff took a pay cut to help make ends meet. The organization's other two employees also donated back to Operation Migration.

Money is raised through the group's "Mile Maker" promotion, which lets people donate for a mile or a portion of a mile of the 1,250-mile migration.

Duff hopes that a corporate sponsor can be found.

In the beginning, he said, people scoffed at the idea of trying to reintroduce the rarest bird in the country by wearing crane costumes and cranking up their ultralight aircraft.

Now in its sixth year, the tiny organization has seen an 80 percent survival rate. The birds have proved they can make every milestone they need to make to recover from the brink of extinction.

"What could be more important than saving a creature that took 65-million years to evolve?" Duff said.

For more information, visit www.operationmigration.org.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 352 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.