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The whooping crane is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans settled in the New World, there were an estimated 10,000 of them. By the late 1800s, that number fell to about 1500. In 1941, there were 23—two in captivity and just under two dozen in the wild.
Joe Duff wanted to fix that. To do so, he and his colleagues decided to dress up kind of like the whooping cranes they wanted to save.
Duff is the co-founder and CEO of a not-for-profit organization called Operation Migration. The whooping crane population is at risk mostly due to habitat loss—the areas they have been migrating to and from, for generations, have slowly been eroded away as people have moved in. Each subsequent generation of cranes learns the migratory path by following their parents and, unfortunately, the parents were going into a long-destroyed habitat; many did not survive the season. Without parents to guide them, the younger cranes were lost, and they, too, perished.
To combat this, Operation Migration uses a development from the 1980s and 1990s. A Canadian ultralight aircraft enthusiast named Bill Lishman—who would later become Duff’s co-founder—theorized that certain waterfowl could be trained to follow such a plane to a different migratory destination. In 1993, Lishman successfully led a group sixteen of Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. Thirteen of the sixteen returned to Ontario the next year—without needing a human guide.
Lishman’s innovation centered on the fact that waterfowl, soon after their birth, imprint upon the first creature they see. Typically, this is their birth mother, but in a controlled environment, it could be basically any animal—including a person, if conditions are right. Duff, in an interview with NPR’s Talk of the Nation, explained: “Whooping cranes are hatched in the nest, in a marsh on the ground, basically, and they leave the nest almost immediately and follow their parents out to forage for food. And if they don’t follow their parents, they’re lost. So that natural instinct to imprint is there, and we just substitute parent for pilot and make sure they imprint on us.” The pilots wear the above-seen costumes so that the whooping cranes, when reintroduced to the wild, are not familiar with humans. Duff does not want them to learn that other people they come across are going to coddle and care for them because, simply, they won’t.
Once the cranes are able—assuming they’ve learned to follow the pilot—Operation Migration continues their conditioning, training them to follow the ultralight aircraft, as seen below.
According to an interview Duff did with VetStreet.com, there are now roughly 500 whooping cranes in the wild—a roughly 20-fold increase in just a few generations, although there is a long way to go. And there are unexpected problems along the way. As reported by the Sierra Club, toward the end of 2011 and into 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded Operation Migration’s aircraft due to an unclear rule requiring the organization to obtain a special waiver before they took flight again. They are working with the FAA on a permanent solution to allow the flights to go off without further problems.