The Journey Home

Like the great philosopher and baseball player Yogi Berra used to say, “It was deja vous all over again.”

I was once again chasing a pair of tail lights through the dark of night as the tracking van with its cargo of three whooping crane chicks followed Colleen in the all night run from southern Illinois to White River Marsh for release. It had been a very long month since the chicks left St Marks with us in hot pursuit. The tracking van odometer groaned with the addition of over 10,000 miles.  So did my back.

It seemed like just yesterday, or should I say last night,  that I was following Walt through the same dark tunnel south last fall as we transported our seven crane chicks from Wisconsin to Tennessee to resume the migration… a trip some have referred to as “Box Away Home.” Walt had made many of these trips over the years. In fact come to think of it, I made a similar trip with him fifteen years ago transporting trumpeter swan cygnets from Alaska to Virginia for another ultralight migration project. Only that time we sat in an airplane. “Coffee, tea or an inflight magazine?” I liked that better. Much easier to stay awake. All night bonsai runs are a different story. But on last fall’s trip to Tennessee we carried with us the secret prayer that the chicks would return to Wisconsin unassisted come spring. That was not to be. So Colleen and I gathered up the three chicks still together in Williamson County, Illinois and headed off north into the night, sad that we were not permitted to gather up all five chicks earlier when it would have been easy.

I soon discovered that the trick to staying awake on all night drives is…. staying awake. And to do that, you don’t count sheep. We soon passed a car on the side of the road with a flat tire. Glad I was that we had just put new tires all around on the tracking van this winter and on the Ford truck last winter. That got me to counting all the tires on all of our fleet. Let’s see. Three pickup trucks, each with a spare. That’s 15. Two vans… 8 plus 2 is 10. Trailers: Two pen trailers and spares…. 6. Aircraft trailer, 4 plus spare…. 5. CraneCam trailer, 2. New RV trailer, 4 plus spare, 5. Motorhomes: Flair, 6 plus spare, 7. Jamboree, again 6 plus spare, 7. Trikes, two used on migration last year plus training trike at Patuxent, 9. Three new trikes, 9. Two hand carts which we used a lot, 4. Then there’s Richard’s motorcycle and five bicycles we took on migration, that’s 12 but I won’t count them. So that comes to what? 79 tires! Gosh! That’s a lot of rubber meeting the road!

Then I passed a Brinks Armored Car. That got me to thinking about Paul. Paul was a classmate of mine in commercial diving school back in the 70’s. He and two of his “associates” had successfully robbed a Brinks Armored Car. They were happily enjoying the fruits of their labor when the police arrived a year later having been tipped off by an informant. I vaguely remember how much each guy got which got me thinking about the value of my cargo. Let’s see. Our annual budget is around $675,000. Divide that by the six surviving birds from the Class of 2014 and you get $112,500 per bird. Now multiply that by 3 and I am transporting $337,500 worth of birds. Now, just for the sake of curiosity, do this for the last three years together. Two surviving birds from the Class of 2013 and three surviving birds from the Class of 2012 and add those to the 6 from the Class of 2014 to get a total of 11 birds. Now 3 times $675,000 equals $2,025,000 divided by 11 equals $184,090 per bird. Wow! That brings the financial investment in the three birds sleeping in the back over half a million bucks!  That’s more than the cash usually transported in a Brinks Armored Car at any one time. If numbers like these don’t wake you up, nothing will. Well, I thought, I used to think the only thing I was qualified for after my involvement of twenty years in bird projects was as a Greeter at Walmart. Now, I can drive an armored car! In life, it pays to have options.

The morning sun greeted Colleen and me as we pulled into the parking lot at the White River Marsh release site. Three whoopers just flew by us and our old friend #4-12 was standing atop a dirt pile at the end of the runway crowing like king of the roost. The chicks exited their boxes fresh as daisies and began dancing around together in joyful exuberance. They looked as though they had just traveled through some magic portal and found themselves in the past and the future, both at the same time. And so they did. We just stood unmoving, thrilled at the sight.

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  1. Doug May 12, 2015 11:44 am

    Tell those cranes to get with it so the cost per bird can come down to a more reasonable level.

  2. Sue McCurdy May 11, 2015 3:40 pm

    I’m so glad they made it home safely, even if you did have to take them. They’ll make it north next year.

  3. Margie Tomlinson May 11, 2015 12:53 pm

    Dear “Crane Daddy”, Every time I read your delightful stories I wish there was a multi-million dollar lottery y’all could win to help take care of our precious Whoopers. Thank you for sharing the adventures with us and all you do for them. Glad you’re all back to WI safe & sound.

  4. Bikebrains May 11, 2015 11:59 am

    Any news concerning the Wayward Two, 3-14 and 4-14?

  5. birdlady9 May 11, 2015 10:51 am

    I can only imagine how it felt to watch the chicks when they were released at the marsh. I know I have “crane bumps” just reading about it! Thanks, Brooke.

  6. Lindi Allen May 11, 2015 9:32 am

    I love the way you write, it makes me feel like I am sitting there listening to you in person.

  7. ffmn May 11, 2015 8:59 am

    * I know one more thing… I can’t afford a Whooping Crane. ;(

  8. ffmn May 11, 2015 8:57 am

    Huh???? So #3 & #4 are now back in WI? Fun read, but I got lost in the tunnel. Who’s on first? lol

  9. Warrenwesternpa May 11, 2015 8:14 am

    The Journey Home, Brooke Pennypacker

    We can imagine the thrill those three birds felt if birds can feel. Being stranded when their migration North instincts gave out. To us it would be like the only bridge home had collapsed and there was no other way to get to the other side. Soon as our birds stepped out into “home” … They knew where they were. It would be like waking up from a nightmare! Er, a birdmare!
    Great entry Brooke. Thank you and Colleen for the trip Home!

  10. Patricia Ewing May 11, 2015 8:13 am

    Thank you Brooke. I really enjoy your adventures – glad this one was successful for the 3 chicks too.

  11. Kay May 11, 2015 8:02 am


    And, don’t forget that one little guy from 2014 did make it back to Wisconsin by wings. For whatever reason she hooked up with the two fours and they safely escorted her back. I’ll always wonder why the others didn’t also accept the 4’s invitation. . . . Maybe they left before the rest of the girls had their bags packed with all their important bling stowed in just the right places.

    SO glad to hear how happy these three are to be HOME!

  12. Bobbie May 11, 2015 7:58 am

    Congratulations! I’m so happy, and may I add relieved, that all worked out well. Tears are streaming down my face as I type this. I’m looking forward to the Class of 2015 and the amazing journey Operation Migration has taken me on. All of you at OM and the other participating agencies are amazing. From the hatching of the chicks to the flight training is inspiring.