Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

The Taming of #710

In The Field Report From Operation Migration Whooping Cranes

If you have followed this project for any length of time you will know that the single message we repeat at every opportunity is please don’t approach our birds. That request is posted on many partners websites; accompanies every press release; and punctuates our presentations but still there are those that don’t heed the warning.

Teaching birds to migrate is not an easy task. It takes a year-long commitment for every generation we release, and a crew of twelve to compete the migration. Adding an isolation protocol and removing all human elements multiplies the complexity by a factor of ten. We fly our aircraft with peripheral vision limited by goggles that hide our eyes and suffer through the heat of July in full-length costumes. We restrict all access to a small, but essential crew; keep the birds away from buildings and cars, and ensure that their every experience is as natural as we can make it.

Simple tasks like cutting the grass on the training strips adjacent their Necedah enclosures, or making repairs requires extra people to sequester the birds away from the area while the work is completed. Each migration stopover we select must have an isolated area to place the pen and another one to hide the birds while it’s set up. And all the while we live in fear that someone will approach the birds in the belief that their curiosity takes precedence over our hard work.

There are those that believe that our protocol excludes everyone but them; and others that feel tameness in wild animals is a fact of life and that only those that have learned to live in proximity to people will survive.

But Whooping cranes are a paradigm of the kind of wildness that exists beyond the backyard in the regions outside the security of a park. They are denizens of the open and inaccessible wetlands and surely we can make a space for them to exist as they were meant to be.

Most of the people who follow this project understand what we are trying to achieve but there are also those who choose to ignore it. Among them a woman who lives on Tooke Lake in Florida where crane #710 and four other birds wintered last year. The local residents understood the problem of the five cranes being attracted to backyard songbird feeders and agreed to stop the practice while the tracking team used all their tools to flush them away. But one woman ignored the pleas and continued to provide food to attract them.

Of the five birds that used her feeder, number 710 was the worst offender. Completely tamed to people and cars he began to frequent the ethanol plant near the Necedah Refuge once he returned to Wisconsin. Attracted by a free meal of spilled corn, he became accustomed to trucks and traffic. His presence there attracted other birds and often as many as 9 were there at one time. The tracking team tried using our swamp monster but it only worked for a short time and Mylar strips hung on string only worked for a day or so. It didn’t take long before 710 realized that no harm came to him if he didn’t fly away.

Above and beyond the job of monitoring the 79 birds that are now in this population, keeping 710 away from the ethanol plant became a constant problem for the Tracking Team. Believing he was completely corrupted and beyond rehabilitation and any chance of ever being wild again they asked WCEP and the Recovery Team for permission to remove 710 from the study. So last Tuesday he was captured and temporarily moved to the International Crane Foundation. Yesterday, he was relocated to the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida to spend the remainder of his life as a captive display bird.

The ethanol plant will continue to be an attraction to our birds. It is very visible from the air and the spilled corn must be tempting. Maybe in the future we can use a well trained dog as a constant deterrent or treat the spilled corm with foul tasting chemicals. We could try to relocate persistent birds or use a handheld lazar gun called an avian dissuader to flush them away.

After the extreme measures it took to get 710 into the wild and after completing two round-trips to Florida and back on his own, it seems a shame that he will never fly again.

But maybe his fate will reinforce our message that kindness kills wildness and Whooping cranes need a place of their own.

More details on Operation Migration

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