Some people wish they could travel the world or win a lottery, but if I had a genie’s blessing this morning, I would have used all three wishes to help me understand what these birds were thinking. After almost twenty years of flying with birds, I could make an educated guess, but none of what I have to offer accounts for this behavior.

This morning we woke to perfect conditions. The air was cold and still and better than any day we have had in months. It was my lead and I landed next to the pen and called for the release of the birds. They took off in a burst and rather than risk hitting the ones in front of me, I held back until they passed overhead. I climbed up behind them and took the lead as we banked right and began a slow climb past the home of our stopover host. The birds took advantage of the turn and cut the corner to catch up. They were strung off the wing like pearls in the morning sun.

After one turn we were on course and two dropped back. Normally this would encourage these birds to turn as well, but they ignored the stragglers. This allowed Brooke and Richard to move in and collect them.

The climb was smooth and clean and the birds were strong and locked on as we inched up at a hundred feet per minute. We reached 600 feet and the thought crept into my head that maybe we were getting the break we needed so badly. Maybe that was all it took to ruin everything because for no reason at all, they broke. It wasn’t because they were falling behind or the climb was too much for them. And it wasn’t one of those tentative departures we so often see as the birds test their ability to take the lead and change the direction. Instead they peeled away like a fighter jet rolling into a dive.

I intercepted them and they followed me back on course. I hoped it was only a momentary lapse into old habits – but they broke again – and again. Brooke and Richard were getting farther away as I circled twenty times with the same result. When I would catch up to them and re-take the lead, it was always #7 leading the V formation. At one point, when I placed my wing in front of her, she opened her beak and jabbed the wingtip in an angry challenge for the lead. She would follow for a while as long as we were heading in the direction she chose, but even then she would break and take the rest of the flock with her in sheer defiance of the aircraft.

I tried to dethrone her by pushing her out of the lead with my wing, but the second in command was #5, and he was just as bad. After what felt like a hundred attempts, I tried to lead them back to the field and land. I planned for Geoff to put numbers 5 and 7 back in the pen and then to leave again with the others. As we passed overhead I began a descent, but they all kept going.

Afraid to get too far ahead with only two birds, Brooke and Richard came back to try and help. I caught number 7 seven  miles to the north and again took the lead, but each time she would steal them away and head north. I tried leading them east, then west, hoping they would eventually fall into line, but they would turn with such purpose it was obvious I had little authority. As I chased them, she would swing them around on a course due north.

Richard and Brooke joined the fray. We tried to coax them down to tree top level as if we were about to land. They would follow, looking down to see what field we had chosen. We hopped hills and trees leading them back to the pen but a mile out they recognized the rouse and broke again.

After two and a half hours we managed to bring them back to the pen one or two at a time. All except for #10 who had enough after an hour and dropped into a pond like a helicopter. Caleb and Gerald picked him up and brought him back to the pen.

Migration is triggered by stimuli that are still not understood, but at some point it ends. A period of sedentary behavior follows while they spend time foraging at their wintering grounds until that urge hits again for the return trip. Maybe we have stayed too long in Alabama and for them migration is over. Or, maybe they were just too long in one place. Maybe if we had a few flying days in a row to gain back their confidence, or maybe we just have a few too many aggressive birds with minds of their own.

Whatever the cause, it is obvious we will not get these birds to Florida this year in time to acclimate them to the wetlands of St. Marks and Chassahowitzka. We have to admit that it is time to concede to the greater influence of nature, and for this year, stop trying to engineer a behavior we don’t really understand.

The annual Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership meetings take place this week. We will be attending by phone and a decision will be made as to what to do with these birds. They normally undergo a gentle release into the wild and we still hope that is possible, but just where it will take place is yet to be determined. We will keep you posted.

As for me, I only want one wish – well maybe two.

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