Guest Author:  Christine Barnes

“These newly hatched Whooping crane chicks have no parents. So we teach them what they need to know to survive. But they neither see us, nor hear us.”

The room is silent as students ponder, then watch and listen in rapt attention as the story unfolds.

We are Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, Operation Migration’s education team, and we offer presentations in schools along the migration route. Our presentation lasts about an hour, and consists of a variety of interesting activities, including interactive sharing of knowledge and information, a slide show, and videos. We introduce and/or reinforce age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts.

On this 2011 migration, we have visited 15 schools and met with over 1670 students and their teachers. Principals, other education staff and interested community members have sometimes joined our groups. And what a wonderful time we have had along the way, working with children in Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama! We have worked with a single class of 23 students, and an entire school of 667 students packed into an auditorium. We have presented on a school night at a nature center with 70 community members and twenty-four high school students and their teacher present.

Many classes follow the cranes’ journey and are very well-prepared. Some are new-comers to the Whooping cranes’ story, and are fascinated from the beginning. Students ask many thoughtful questions at the beginning and end of the presentation, which we either answer or give back to them for their own investigation in class or on their own. Nearly every student in the schools where we presented was respectful, enthusiastic and engaged. It has been a privilege to work with each and every one.

As we present the cranes’ story, there are audible gasps among the participants – the life-sized photo of a 5 ft. tall crane with an 8 ft. wingspan amazes most, and the youngest children need to be reassured that these birds will do no harm from their wetland home.

There is laughter at the photo of the tired crane chick, asleep in its food bowl. Listeners’ faces reflect their sadness, and sometimes there are tears, when we share the blatant disregard for wildlife and law, and reveal that misguided persons with firearms still shoot and kill these magnificent birds. And ironically, as we end 2011, yet another Whooping crane has died at the end of a gun in Indiana.

We speak of the inspiration of the founders and staff of Operation Migration and its WCEP partners to dream the impossible dream and move forward to save a species from extinction. The individuals who work on this project see a need and an opportunity to make a difference, and many make personal sacrifices to do so.

We talk with students about how this can be their story, too – how they can strive to be scientists, mathematicians, teachers, environmentalists, conservationists. We encourage the children to reflect on what each one can do to make things better each day, or what project their class, or even their entire school can do.

The lights are low, the room is silent. They neither see us nor hear us: from the back of the room, the solution to the opening riddle enters: a silent crane handler in costume. For the first time, students understand, on some level, the reintroduction project’s extraordinary effort to teach the cranes while preserving whatever wild instincts exist innately in these birds. It is, after all, their only hope.

In the end, we talk with the children about the bigger picture: this is not just about Whooping cranes. It’s about learning to live together on our beautiful planet Earth in a respectful, caring and reflective manner – being aware of our actions and what consequences, intended or not, may unfold as a result.

It is a story about making mistakes, and working hard to fix them before it’s too late. In fact, the journey of the Whooping cranes is an acknowledgement and commitment to the sanctity of life.

Editor’s Note – The Education component of the 2011 migration was made possible thanks to a joint grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Southern Company through the Power of Flight program. Both organizations have also supported Operation Migration’s ultralight-led project in past years and they have our sincere gratitude for their generosity and abiding interest in the welfare of endangered Whooping cranes.

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