Tue, Dec 22, 2009
Aircraft Lead The Way From Wisconsin To Florida
Joe Duff takes his love of wildlife
to new heights. As co-founder of Operation Migration, Duff, 59, is
the nonprofit group's co-founder and flies one of four ultralight
aircraft that leads endangered whooping cranes making their maiden
flight from central Wisconsin to Florida's Gulf Coast. It's a
critical part of the ongoing effort to restore North America's
whooping crane population, which had dwindled to just 15 birds in
the 1940s but stands at 532 today.
Operation Migration uses aircraft-led migration to reintroduce
several species of endangered birds in to the wild and teach them
to migrate. Their work became the subject for the 1996 motion
picture, Fly Away Home.
Seven states, 1285 miles, and an unknown number of migration
days lie between the 2009 Whooping crane chicks fledging ground at
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, and their wintering
grounds in Florida. The flock is currently resting in
The cranes were all born in captivity at the U.S. Geological
Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and sent to
WI at about 2 months old. Duff and the others trainers wear baggy
white costumes at all times when training the chicks for migration.
The strange attire helps create a bond between the birds and the
ultralight without letting them get comfortable around people.
"We isolate them from all things human until they're released,"
Duff told the Huntsville Times. "At that point, we hope their
natural fear takes over, and that keeps them wild."
There are 76 cranes reared by Operation Migration living in the
wild today, Duff said, and the 20 young birds heading south this
year will increase that number. Half the flock is
destined for St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge south of
Tallahassee; the rest will spend the winter at Chassahowitzka
National Wildlife Refuge near Tampa.
Duff intends to head back to Ontario to spend Christmas with his
wife and 10-year-old daughter before heading back to AL to finish
leading the birds to Florida.
"The migration instinct is pretty strong in me," he said.
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