Better Technology

Instead of waiting for an old, re-commissioned satellite to pick up three hits from a bird’s transmitter and triangulate the location, the new CTT units provide a GPS track history of exactly where the bird has been since the last update. In the past we would get a couple of locations during their return migration and we would simply connect the dots with straight lines to estimate the course.

As you can see in the last report, Heather was able to show the exact route they took. This is one of the first times we have been able to graphically show how closely they follow the path we showed them last year.

It makes you wonder just what it was they were learning on the way south. It’s hard to believe they gathered any information at all from so many weather delays, hour-long rodeos around the departure points and the times when some of them had to be crated to the next stopover.

Flying over the Tennessee River near Hiwassee State Wildlife Area.

The 2003 cohort crossing the Tennessee River near Hiwassee State Wildlife Area.

Even flying at 4000 feet you can only see 20 miles or so in all directions and that is on the clear days. And it’s not like our route is lined with obvious landmarks. Most of Illinois looks pretty much the same from the air as does Kentucky or Alabama.

In a preliminary study in 1996, we led Sandhill cranes from Port Perry, Ontario to Virginia. We flew around the east end of Lake Ontario and then southwest to Environmental Studies at Airlie near Warrenton, VA. On the way back, the birds flew straight north – making a beeline for home until they hit the south shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester, NY. It took them some time but they eventually made their way around the west end of the lake and back to Port Perry. That means they were 190 miles from anything they had flown over. Even with super crane vision, they couldn’t have seen that far, so we know they don’t recognize the route from visual clues, at least not entirely.

We also know that if they don’t fly at least part of the route, they get lost on the way back. Case in point are the 2014 birds that we trucked from Wisconsin to Tennessee to avoid the early onset of winter. We flew them the last half of the migration route and in the spring, they followed that path north until they ran out of information in southern Illinois — but what information were they lacking??

In our early studies with Sandhills, we even tried stage-by-stage migration where birds were trucked 50 miles, released to fly around, then trucked another 50 miles. We hoped they would connect the dots to find their way home, but it didn’t work. Brooke Pennypacker and Environmental Studies at Airlie carried some Canada geese aloft in large cage suspended below a gas filled balloon, hoping the birds could simply witness the migration in a passive sort of way and find their way back. But after they were dropped off, they didn’t return.

And why is it that some birds instinctively know how and where to migrate while others need to be shown the route. Precocial birds like cranes leave the nest almost immediately after hatching and follow their parents through the marsh to learn what to eat. They are considered more advanced than altricial birds, like passerines that are hatched naked with their eyes closed. They can’t keep themselves warm and the parents deliver their food until they fledge. Once out of the nest, they are on their own.

Some European Cuckoos are parasitic nesters laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, then leaving. Their offspring have no connection to their biological families yet they can migrate on their own to the same habitat used by their parent, thousands of miles away. Wouldn’t it be handy if cranes retained that instinctive migration knowledge while developing those other skills?

I am not much of a believer in the afterlife but I wish, as a reward for all the hard work of living, we would get twenty minutes after we die with a panel of experts who knew the real answers to questions like what is the origin of the universe, where is Jimmy Hoffa and how do cranes migrate?

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  1. Kelly Walker April 7, 2016 11:51 am

    Your hard work might just pay off and you’ll find the mystery to the crane migration. Right here in your life where it will be useful. ” It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

  2. Barb April 5, 2016 8:20 pm

    The picture of the Cranes flying over the Tennessee River is fabulous. How did some manage to get above the Whoppers?

    • Heather Ray April 6, 2016 7:31 am

      They were flying alongside Joe when he took the photo.

  3. Catherine Wohlfeil April 5, 2016 8:14 pm

    I have a small bird that has decided to take up residence in a tiny hole in the siding of my house. Each summer, as its chick hatches, it leads and the chick follows slowly across the yard, the adult bird showing the chick each berry bush that is a source of nutrition, then on and on to the next berry bush, the mother bird teaching, the child listening carefully to her song. More is transmitted in that one moment of communication than could ever be gathered in a single word or a single sentence.

    When we pass, we won’t need a panel of experts, we’ll just look into His eyes, listen to the song we’ve always known we’ve heard, and we’ll know, just as the bird knows where the next berry bush lies.

  4. Mindy April 5, 2016 3:21 pm

    Thank you Joe for writing down the questions and ponderings about this wonderful thing called migration. So amazing to be able to see how closely they follow the southward path because of the technology of CTTs. I want to know exactly how Cranes migrate also and because I am born again, I will be able to ask God someday. And yes, I believe in Heaven and Hell and I live in the Bible Belt of the south but the way I really know is by the Word of God and the witness of the Holy Spirit as the “seal” in my heart and by a daily relationship with the Living God. When I heard about #9-13, I put on my shirt that says “Heaven is the place where every animal you’ve ever loved runs to greet you” and went outside because all of nature soothes my soul. I am certain I will see him again. Just wanted to share the Hope that is within me….Thank you so much for a great report. I will be mulling over all your information…

  5. ‘rapnblu’ from chat April 5, 2016 2:51 pm

    “The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” – Douglas Adams

    Thanks Heather, Joe, Brooke and company for keeping us in the loop! Perhaps we can all meet and discuss migration and other mysteries someday in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

    Keep up the good work, I’ll be watching!

  6. Barbara Dobbs April 5, 2016 2:35 pm

    Interesting and informative piece about the mysteries of crane migration. thanks.

  7. Dorothy N April 5, 2016 10:06 am

    Great post, Joe. Thanks for the information about the various attempts to figure out the skills/instincts/whatever involved in migration.

  8. Lara Leaf April 5, 2016 9:47 am

    Various birds, and their abilities, have always fascinated me. How can a creature with a small brain store so much information in it (even if their brains are large in proportion to their body size)? Are their brains more efficient in response to their needs? What part does instinct play? What exactly is instinct? I have wondered if their brains function in some similar way to a human with savant syndrome. Whatever the answer, birds are a very unique species.

  9. Mollie Cook April 5, 2016 9:42 am

    Great report & insight Joe……….thank you. I am a believer in the afterlife, spending eternity in Heaven with Jesus & I WILL get to hear all of the crane mysteries………..I can’t wait for that fireside chat!! Blessings for all you do for them & looking forward to the new adventures at WRM this year.

  10. M April 5, 2016 9:16 am

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the earth’s magnetic field. Back in the early days of Shark Week, when they used to show some actual scientific programs, they did an experiment with shark pups in the Florida Keys. They took them to the Bahamas to see whether they could find the way back on their own. The sharks wandered around until they found the magnetic field, then made a beeline straight back to the exact location in the Keys. I’d heard that birds can do this. Maybe the Whoopers are attuned to it too. Maybe a future study?

  11. thunder April 5, 2016 9:06 am

    oh ~ Joe I always wondered how they do it? I can understand you wondering more then us because of all those Rodeos! Round and Round you go.

    And now look at them, following the dots all the way home. Mother Nature is a wonder for sure. Do you think they have a map under that huge wing? “Jimmy turn right…now…left – silly.” Guys never ask for directions. 🙂

    Thanks for the post. We miss you here.

  12. Anne Beardsell April 5, 2016 8:59 am

    It is an amazing job you do all,to help those wonderful birds.
    Thank you.

  13. Carol Berglund April 5, 2016 8:45 am

    Thank you, Joe.

  14. P. Doms April 5, 2016 8:39 am

    Yes, very interesting puzzle, migration. Why? When? How? Was intrigued by the hot air balloon test being a ‘failed to answer” as thought it would work..And loons? Follow parents waaay south and STAY there a year or so even though parents returned north, before finding their way back to my state, Minnesota. Nature is marvelous..

  15. Leota Hopper April 5, 2016 8:34 am

    Thank you Joe for the report of migration. Yes, it is a puzzle how some instinctly know the route and others have trouble? We can only guess? Great work you and Brooke & many others, too many to list have bring the Whooping Crane from extinction. A Wonderful feeling you all have must. Great work! God Bless you all and to new adventures, you all will be great at. Keep up the good work and reports on our Whooping Cranes!

  16. Kay Huey April 5, 2016 8:14 am

    What you’ve already learned astounds me. Without having your wealth of knowledge my untrained but curious brain is wondering if in future years the 2015 cohort will continue to closely follow the course that you and Deke provided for them. For instance, I’m puzzled by the Cow Pond crane. Why doesn’t he hop over to St. Mark’s? Etc.

  17. Barbara Wing April 5, 2016 8:03 am

    Informative report; thanks Joe. Wonder what the CTT units will show through Illinois…OM will continue rocking, learning, and teaching.

  18. Jackye Bohr April 5, 2016 7:54 am

    Love the photo. They are right over our house. It is amazing how they find their way across so many states every fall and spring with the ever changing landscape. Thank you Joe for interesting report. I guess it is part of nature that we are not suppose to know.

  19. Shirley Green April 5, 2016 7:25 am

    Absolutely fascinating report Joe. Migration has always fascinated me, especially the extremely long routes like the monarchs follow from Canada to Mexico. Thank you

  20. Marsha Lynn Walsh April 5, 2016 6:21 am

    Never know. The afterlife just may give you those answers! Great information. Thank you. God’s blessings