Our Sandhill Crane Story
Since 1995, we have worked with the Whooping crane's non-endangered relative, the Sandhill crane, learning valuable information in our plight to establish safe migratory routes.
This gray, long-necked and legged bird that sports a red bald patch has taught us two essential things. Because of the autumn 1997 to spring 1998 Sandhill study, we know that birds will initiate their own return migration without the aid of wild birds. However, Sandhills from that study showed a propensity for seeking out humans. To correct that problem we modified our costume-rearing technique, which taught us how to preserve birds' wildness. The Sandhills raised for our 1998 to 1999 study never saw or heard humans. It is imperative that any birds we condition to follow our aircraft remain wild in order to ensure their survival upon release.
On October 3, 2000, we launched a pilot study with Sandhill Cranes to establish safe stop-over sites between Wisconsin and Florida. Using the information gathered, this same safe migratory route was used in 2001 to guide the first reintroduced flock of migratory Whooping Cranes.
Autumn 1997 to Spring 1998
After being led in the autumn of 1997 by the OM crew to Airlie Center in Virginia and spending the winter there, seven Sandhill cranes failed to return on March 28, 1998 from their daily foraging trip. Kate Sutherland the biologist who had been monitoring the flock over the winter called us with the news.
Two days later, we received another call from Principal Doug Ransom of Gracefield Public School in St. Catharines, Ontario. He reported he had six rather large birds entertaining 250 of his students in the schoolyard!
Throughout their northern trip, the cranes showed a propensity for people, landing at several schoolyards. As the birds traveled throughout Ontario, they came within 30 miles of their fledge grounds in Port Perry.
The fact that six of the birds had made it back to Ontario on their own meant we had reached a large milestone in our work. However, we recognized that we would have to work harder to preserve the birds wildness while teaching them migratory routes.
Spring 1998 to Spring 1999
Not surprisingly, our focus for the next study became "wildness." We attempted to raise Sandhill cranes that would follow an ultralight yet avoid human contact once released.
Making several changes to the rearing protocol, we conditioned them to fly with us. Overall, we reduced our contact to a quarter of the time previously needed to condition birds.
We knew the cranes would initiate their own spring migration once led south so, to save costs, we transported them most of the way there in a trailer in the autumn. Transporting them with the trailer didn't affect our objective, which was to see whether they retained their wildness after being released. We flew the Sandhills the last 100 kilometers so that they would know which direction they arrived from. They spent the winter at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in South Carolina.
In the early spring of 1999, we went to the center to apply our "test for wildness," finding that when we were un-costumed we could not get closer than 150 feet before the Sandhills flushed in fear.
As we suspected, the birds did not return to Canada. Joined by a wild Sandhill, the entire group moved up the coast to Cedar Island near Cape Hatteras. They returned to the Tom Yawkey center twice, but eventually settled in Carteret County. A report from an area soy-bean farmer informed us that the birds kept away from humans and fed in open areas.
The farmer's report delighted both us and the members of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team. Our worries were laid to rest that the proposed second migratory flock of Whooping cranes and its future generations would frequent schoolyards and golf courses.
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Located in Maryland, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center has raised our Sandhill cranes from eggs for three of our studies to date. Once the birds are old enough, they are fed a specially formulated and custom-made pellet. The pellet was developed over a number of years and contains the proper amounts of protein and nutrients as well as medication to guard against parasites.
Patuxent has generously agreed to supply feed for the duration of our 2000 project.
Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center
Containing 20, 000 acres of wetland in South Carolina, Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is only accessible by auto ferry and the area where the Sandhills spent the winter of 1998 and 1999. The center's only drawback is its large number of predators--alligators, golden eagles, bald eagles, and more bobcats than bulrushes.
Because of these predators, Canada geese in two previous studies left the center almost immediately after release. To fix the problem we constructed a 250-by-150 feet release pen, made from a five-foot high plastic fence and guarded by three strands of electric wire. We erected the fence in four to 18 inches of water and contained a feeding station in the center. The entire pen was open at the top to let the cranes come and go as they pleased. The electric wire prevented bobcats from crawling under the fence, forcing them to jump over. The splash they would make when they landed would serve as a warning to roosting Sandhills inside of the pen. This pen proved very effective. While it housed the Sandhill cranes over the winter, we lost only one bird to bobcat predation. And that bird was foraging in the tall grasses outside of the pen.