A recent visit to the blog of my biologist buddy Jennifer Bové piqued my interest in whooping cranes.
Throughout the past year, these big, beautiful endangered birds have created quite a buzz among environmentalists, landowners, and—believe it or not—the Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA).
Let’s just say, feathers were ruffled …
The cranes didn’t mean to make trouble. They were simply learning a primal lesson in geography by means of an age-old avian undertaking: migration.
The twist on this airborne adventure was the addition of an ultralight aircraft piloted by people from Operation Migration, a non-profit organization committed to whooping crane conservation. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fly Away Home, you get the idea (those were Canada geese in the movie, but it’s a similar sort of effort).
Operation Migration wants to re-establish a flyway for whooping cranes, which disappeared from the eastern U.S. in the 1800s.
The method is marvelously madcap:
- Raise cranes in captivity
- Condition them to follow ultralight aircraft
- Teach them to migrate by leading them from Wisconsin to their wintering grounds in Florida
Here’s the glitch: the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the crane plane and its feathered followers early in 2012. The specifics of the shutdown get gummy, but the gist is that FAA regulations concerning ultralight aircraft appeared to prohibit Operation Migration from hiring pilots to fly the birds south.
Happily, however, the FAA issued an exemption, clearing the cranes for a 2012 takeoff. In order to maintain migration efforts, Operation Migration pilots must upgrade their places and licenses to meet higher safety standards.
In the meantime, I’m rooting for the Spring Migration of the “Class of 2011.” Nine cranes that were led south by ultralight aircraft are on their way north, unassisted. A tenth crane, which left the ultralight-led migration last fall, has already completed her migration back to Wisconsin.
Let’s hear it for free-thinking females.