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Tue, Dec 22, 2009

Ultralight Teaches Whooping Cranes To Migrate

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 Alabama.

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.

FMI: http://www.operationmigration.org

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