FLIPPING THE BIRD

The other night our dinner hosts were asking if we all had favorites among the young cranes. Each of us had our own response for our own reasons, but my choice was #1-11

During our sixteen day layover in Illinois, #1 got into a minor altercation that left him with a little bare spot of missing feathers on the front of his neck. It has now grown back but the feathers came in white while the rest of his neck is still the fawn color of youth. This little white rectangle makes him look clerical and also easier to spot when we are flying. You may remember that #1 one was a problem at White River Marsh.

Whooping crane chicks fledge when they are 80 to 100 days old, and until the first time they lift off the ground, the function of their wings must be a complete mystery. I am not suggesting that they actually contemplate the purpose of appendages that fold up on their back and flop around when they run, but there must be a point when the penny drops.

Because of his age, #1 reached that “ah-ha” moment before all the other birds in his cohort. When they all ran down the runway after the aircraft, he was the only one able to follow it into the air. The rest of his flock-mates stopped at the end of the runway when their smaller wings wouldn’t carry them any farther. He soon learned to circle back and join them and it didn’t take long for that action to become habit. Later, when all the chicks began to fly, he soon learned that if he simply landed they would all come back, and in the meantime he could poke in the grass and chase grasshoppers. For him, flying began to mean a quick circuit around the pen and then an opportunity to forage until his friends came home, at which point he would go back into the pen just like all the rest of them.

During the first stages of the migration, he would land in a nearby field before being loaded into a crate for a bumpy ride in the van. Maybe that unpleasant experience convinced him there was benefit in sticking with the aircraft and it only took one completed migration leg before he had it figured out. Thereafter he became one of the best followers. But following just wasn’t #1’s forte. If turning back wasn’t working for him, he tried leading.

Each bird has its own flying characteristics and #1 preferred the lead. Instead of tucking in behind the wing, he liked to fly above it. Gliding a few inches above the tip, he would be carried along, but his presence there destroyed some of the lift on that side, and our aircraft would turn in his direction. The pilot would have to shift the wing the other way to balance the uneven load, and two arms and a lot of extra effort was needed to carry him.

To correct this annoying habit, I tried speeding up, slowing down, or even making a steep turn. That would cause all the birds to chase the wing and sometimes he would lose his lead position when they reformed. He would follow in the number 2 or 3 spot for a while, but it wasn’t long before he would work his way up to his favored location again.

All things that fly have a center of gravity or C of G. In an aircraft, it must be balanced in order to fly level. As an example, a Piper Cub, which has tandem seats (one behind the other) must be flown solo from the back seat only or it will fly so “nose down” that it will crash. Even birds have a C of G. Generally it is right at the wings, or the center of the lifting point. That’s why cranes must fly with the legs and neck outstretched while herons fly with the necks curved.

After my arms grew sore from carrying #1 one on my wing tip, I decided to try some behavior modification. I slowed very slightly until his body was ahead of the wing but his legs were still over it. Then I pushed up quickly, which raised my wing, caught his legs and tipped him off balance with his head down.

This upset in his C of G would cause him to plummet thirty feet below the wing before he regained balance and climbed back up. Our trike wings are made of fabric so there was no fear of causing injury and it only took a couple of tries at “Flipping the Bird” before he learned to avoid that annoyance.