Whoop for Bird Conservation

Thanks to the innovative GPS, Google Maps and built-in compass on our Smartphones, humans should theoretically never get lost again. But what if directions were innate? Take migratory birds for example. Every year, millions of birds fly across continents to breed and feed, but what would happen if this inbuilt compass were suddenly misdirected?

North America’s iconic bird species, Whooping Cranes (with a silent W) at one stage fell to just 15 birds in 1941. Believed to be at 1,400 individuals in 1860, the population crash was due to hunting and habitat lost. Today the species has climbed back to 100 individuals with the help of various organisations and government funding.

North America’s majestic Whooping Crane
Creative Commons: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Conservation of this species involves three key things: light aircrafts, hand held puppets, and a little bit of magic, which made such a good story that it was turned into a movie (Fly Away Home). Curious? Perhaps I should explain further.

Fact 1: We know that having a small population of any species in the wild is living very dangerously. In the case of disease, a catastrophic event or human intervention, a population limited in genetic traits is a recipe for disaster; or worse, extinction.

Fact 2: Many wild populations are more robust than one population if a tornado were to rip through the habitat of one population.

North America’s tallest bird is known to migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas during winter. Winter consists of resting, eating blue crabs, whooping and dancing to woo the opposite sex. It is then time to migrate back to Canada during the third week of April, of course accompanied by each new love. The end of September often brings with it the date in which young birds take flight for the first time: a cruisy 4000 km flight back to Texas.

Thanks to the Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT), made up of a team of ten members from America and Canada, a second population has been introduced into the wild after being hatched in captivity.

Fact 3: We know that migration is innate, and even with captive breeding programs, we would expect individuals to remain en route, as is seen in displaced juvenile starlings that managed to find their flock 800 km off track.

However, it is this innate route that scientists wanted to eliminate, to founder a second population to diminish the risk of extinction among this species. Believe it or not, scientists were able to break this innate route and direct captive-reared chicks to another location.

This is where the Whooping Crane hand-held puppets come into play. To minimise human contact with Whooping Crane chicks, each handler must wear a bird costume and abide by several regulations in the presence of the chicks. Regulations include absolutely no talking or sounds of human activities, and very tight rules on carrying food containers whilst in costume.

Look very closely at the “mother” of the chick… it’s a hand-held puppet!

The protocol for conditioning costume-reared Whooping Cranes states that “absolutely no feeding will be done from hand. All food used as an incentive will be dispensed by methods other than hand tossing. Mealworms or other treats will be pointed out using a puppet to encourage foraging.”

But how are the migration patterns of this species changed from humans dressing in bird costumes?

A human-transformed Whooping Crane
Creative Commons USFWS Headquarters

Well, now comes the second conditioning phase: fledglings are taught to follow the light aircraft. The chicks begin following the aircraft around the perimeter of their pen, whereby the puppet is constantly out of the aircraft picking at food. Training duration is slowly increased in preparation for migration as the chicks understand to follow the puppet in the aircraft.

Due to previous conditioning, the Cranes know to fly behind the aircraft during migration. Stopovers are necessary and isolated areas of landing are often preferred. And there we have it, the aircraft leads the way to the final site for the birds to begin their new life in the wild, on a new migration route from Wisconsin in the north, to the west coast in Florida as the new wintering location. The new migration route is naturally taught from elders to their young, as has occurred in the past.

It is advised that two more additional flocks should be established in order to diminish the risk of Whooping Crane extinction.

For further information on the progress of these conservation efforts, you can also get a live cam on the birds by clicking here.

Migration Day has arrived! Whooping Cranes follow the light aircraft to their new home.
Creative Commons Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

5 Responses to “Whoop for Bird Conservation”

  1. rvorwerk says:

    Yes you should Jono, I can foresee you as a great Whooping Crane!

  2. Jono says:

    Wow! Sometimes I want to dress up as a bird and to find out now that someone might actually pay me to do it is great! Thanks for the information.

  3. Karen says:

    It’s great to see that dedication and creativity go a long way! Hopefully the birds will fully recover over time.

  4. rvorwerk says:

    Thanks Lucy! I’ll have to watch Fly Away Home now, especially now that I’ve written this post about the actual research in which it was based on!

  5. Lucy says:

    That’s so fascinating that the scientists were able to re-route the birds migratory path! The whole study makes me think of the ‘fly away home’ movie (loved it as a kid). Really interesting post.