Day 40 – Lead Pilot Report

Date: November 8, 2015 Migration Day: 40
Dist. Traveled: 55 miles
Total Dist. 235 miles
Location: Livingston County, IL


If I were a bird brain la-dee-da-dee-la-dee-da-dee-da…

I have been called a bird brain on a few occasions throughout my life but there are times when I wish it were true. If I had a bird’s brain I might be able to figure out what causes the odd behaviour that has perplexed us since the start of this migration.

With only six birds it should be easy to identify the troublemakers but flock dynamics and dominance structures are beyond my simple human brain.

We have been trying to figure out why our birds refused to climb for the first three migration legs and what makes them break and turn back. All of those behaviors are complicated by being stuck in one place for two weeks and constant southerly winds so sorting out the cause is not cut and dry, especially when you can’t ask questions.

For a while we thought number 2-15 was the problem. She would charge ahead of the aircraft, then move from wingtip to wingtip displacing the birds that were riding comfortably on the vortices. We thought that none of the birds could settle in for the long haul and catch a free ride because she kept bopping around like a kid on a sugar high. So we boxed her to see if the others fell into line. That didn’t happen and when we let her out, she was the only one to make the complete leg.

That still may be the case but after her good performance we started to look at number 1-15. She is the oldest bird and has developed her adult voice way earlier than normal. Being more vocal has elevated her in the dominance structure and she has even started to challenge the aircraft with aggressive threat posturing like a teenager too big for her britches. So we boxed her.

On Sunday morning it was my lead and I took off with five eager birds. They followed diligently for a mile and abruptly turned back. We brought out the swamp monsters, AKA Colleen and Heather but the birds kept breaking off. I landed to start again.

Lou Cambier, our top cover pilot warned us that a layer of ground fog was heading our way and as we slowly climbed we passed through thin rows of silky fog about 200 feet up. My five birds turned into four, then three and finally one as they peeled off one by one and disappeared into the fog now over the pen. I made a wide sweeping turn but Brooke was closer and dropped in to the lead while number 2-15 and I carried on.

Once she was out of the mix, the four remaining birds locked onto Brooke’s wing and headed on course. Was that because of her absence or were they just far enough from the pen to finally pay atrention? Or was the fog too unfamiliar for them and they followed Brooke out of insecurity?

A large bank of fog to the east channeled us southwest and for a while we were at the same altitude and a thousand feet apart. Number 2 was desperate to join her flockmates but I managed to keep her separate and as we cleared the fog, I increased the space between us.

When number 2-15 pulls her antics and tries to lead the aircraft, there is not much you can do. Ideally you would power ahead and retake the lead but not if you have other birds with you and leaving them behind is not an option. So in most cases we have to just let her take the lead. But that’s a lot like letting your children assume the authority of your household and we all know where that leads.

Now I had number 2 alone and it was time for a lesson on who was in charge. With only one bird on the wing I could climb faster than Brooke with his four. We were soon out ahead and number 2 lost track of her flockmates and began to focus on me. She stayed behind the wing while we climbed to a thousand feet but with all that easy flying, she had lots of reserve energy and decided to spend it on dominance.

She dropped below the wing and began to pass me. I added power and pulled the wing back to go faster. Each time she went for the lead, I took it back. She put on a strong fight but her energy was finite while my engine just kept going. She would fall back and I would leave her there until she opened her beak to pant. Then I would slow and she would gratefully take the wing to rest. At some points we were flying at 54 mph, a good 16 mph faster than normal crane cruise speed.

Meanwhile Brooke was struggling with the other four a few miles back and much lower. Number 2 and I passed over the first of several wind farms we will encounter but we were 2500 feet up and she took casual notice.

When Brooke reached the wind farm at 1300 feet altitude, his birds broke and headed east, causing him to lose more altitude to collect them. They seemed to settle down once the fear subsided and he was eventually able to lead them over the turbines.

Number 2 stayed on my wing for the last 15 miles, which took half an hour with the headwinds we had been fighting the entire way. We reached 3000 feet then began a slow descent. Coming down she had the advantage. While descending you can only fly so fast. If you speed up – the aircraft will climb, despite holding the control bar in as far as possible. All she had to do was glide as fast as she wanted or at least faster than me, so she led the way down. Still she stayed close and we landed next to the pen a good 20 minutes before Brooke. That gave me time to feed her grapes and make friends.

I am not certain if the lesson I taught will have any affect or even if it was the right lesson. That’s where that bird brain would come in handy. Maybe tomorrow the birds will teach us another lesson.

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  1. Catherine Wohlfeil November 9, 2015 8:42 pm

    You led her safely over the wind farms… she followed, observed, and learned in order to share with her future loved ones… Guidance combined with trust and compassion… True gifts… Both ways…

  2. Donald Huffman November 9, 2015 6:31 pm

    Triple plus good.

  3. birdlady9 November 9, 2015 2:43 pm

    I’ve always thought of birdbrain as a compliment. 🙂
    Thanks for the insights, Joe!

  4. K B November 9, 2015 9:44 am

    The recap was such an interesting read and yes wouldn’t it be interesting to see and understand through their eyes…if only for an hour or two.

    Thank you all, for your dedication to these special birds.

  5. Sallyls November 9, 2015 8:48 am

    OMG I never thought about having to fly over those horrible wind farms! How terrifying on so many levels. I am glad the birds stayed out of trouble and were able to cross. I hope you get several days of good weather to get them back into a rhythm of cooperation 🙂 You are ALL angels!

  6. Barb November 9, 2015 7:29 am

    Thank you for the commentary. It must be absolutely glorious to be flying so high with the birds. I can only imagine the joy. Barb

  7. Gay Spencer November 9, 2015 7:26 am

    What a fascinating post, Joe!

    If wild, migrating whooping cranes can survive in this world, maybe it will take exactly those perplexing, inexplicable genes that make such a crane impossible for us to understand to keep them alive.

    Maybe she’ll tell stories to her own chicklets about the wise lessons she learned from her Big Yellow Momma. Hope so.

  8. ffmn November 9, 2015 6:50 am

    Whewwww!!!! That covers Sunday’s action. That certainly does make one curious about the ‘thought processes” of #1 and #2. ONWARD!!

  9. Warrenwesternpa November 9, 2015 6:09 am

    Day 40, Lead Pilot Report – Joe Duff

    A million years of evolution packed into those tiny brains and they can still pick and choose their destination. We have to think it out with only a few years to learn and read from others experiences. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could stick around a few thousand more years.

  10. LaraLeaf November 9, 2015 5:19 am

    Wow – this is the most . . . unique migration I have seen! They were such a tight cohort in training but it looks like they got together at the start of the migration and decided to shake things up. LOL on the bird brain – having cohabited for many years with birds in the past, just when I thought I had them sorta figured out, they were only too happy to show me I really knew nothing about their secret world. I think the evolution of flying set their brain in ways we will never fathom. They really are the most astonishing of creatures!