Local resident volunteers with Operation Migration to save the Whooping Cranes

By Christy Breedlove

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As long as birds and man have existed, there has been a fascination about birds. From the tiny bee hummingbird to the imposing albatross, people have been captivated by the sheer numbers, their colors and habitats. The Pharaohs of Egypt revered the falcon as a royal protector, and Native Americans believe that birds hold a special place in their culture.
Each fall, every person from ancient Greece to now has looked to the skies to view flocks of birds flying south to escape the coming winter. In the spring thousands of birds fill the air to return to their summer homes. However, with the onslaught of pollution and the depletion of their habitats, it has become clear that people need to do more than just admire the birds. Something had to be done to protect these endangered animals, particularly the Whooping Crane.
The Whooping Crane is a migratory bird that travels yearly to breed. Just like human parents, the parent cranes teach their young the route of the migration. With the numbers of the crane decreasing to just 15 birds in the 1940’s, the problem became glaring. No adult Whooping Cranes meant no migratory routes for the young.

Saving the Whooping Cranes. Photo credit: Operation Migration

Whooping Cranes are precocial birds, which means shortly after hatching they are able to leave the nest and follow Mom and Dad. Precocial birds like cranes, swans and geese learn to migrate by following their parents. The route they use to reach their wintering grounds may have evolved over millions of years but it is passed from one generation to the next. There are no maps or signposts and when the last bird to use the route dies, so too does that knowledge. Whooping Cranes were wiped out of the eastern half of North America in the 1870’s.
In response, Operation Migration (OM) opened its Canadian doors in 1994 and the United States offices in 1999. Operation Migration has played a lead role in the reintroduction of endangered Whooping Cranes into eastern North America. Its mission seems simple but in practice, it is extremely complex. First, the cranes they worked with came from captive breeding centers. Pilots of ultra-light planes became substitute parents of sorts.

Aircraft-led migration technique relies on the birds’ natural instinct called imprinting. Imprinting means the just-hatched waterfowl chick immediately trusts the first object it sees and follows the object. As soon as the chicks hatch, they bond with their parents and become inseparable. The OM team acts as surrogate parents, helping the birds imprint on the aircraft and conditioning them to fly with it. Later, when the birds are mature, they are led south by the OM team on a pre-determined route to a safe wintering site.
“Essentially, our pilots took the place of parents to teach the introduced Whooping Cranes a suitable migration route,” states Heather Ray of Operation Migration.
Pilots are only one of many volunteer roles. For Cindy Hayes of Walton County, it was only natural for her to step up to the plate.
Hayes recalls the impetus behind her interest in OM. “I have always had a special place in my heart for birds, since 2nd grade when I was asked to do my first report on them. I’ve worked with and owned parrots over the years and have successfully hand raised wild birds that had fallen out of the nest way too young.”
“The fact that OM was looking for volunteers to help with their project was pointed out to me by my wife who found the open request online. It really piqued my interest. Once I read the variety of tasks that volunteers would be expected to do I knew that this adventure was right in my wheelhouse!”

For Christy Breedlove’s full story on Cindy Hayes adventure with the Whooping Cranes, click or tap on this link in the latest issue of Walton Living Magazine, or pick up a copy at any city hall in Walton County or at the Walton County Chamber of Commerce.

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