By the Numbers

Over the last fifteen years, we released 186 Whooping cranes into the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). We have led them on 313 flights between stopover sites and conditioned them to follow our aircraft on 1287 mornings. We have logged thousands of hour of airtime and covered 15,559.75 miles between Wisconsin and Florida.

All of those statistics is my excuse for only remembering the highlights. There are just too many birds and too many hours to remember them all. There were times in the early years when I recognized each crane by its ever-changing patterns of fawn over white, but now there are too many to recall.

Just as I kept detailed records of distances and duration’s, I kept a journal summarizing each flight. When I review the numbers, I am staggered by the effort and when I read the journal, I am humbled by the experience. There are days that stand out like the times we tried to cross the Cumberland Ridge in Tennessee when we had pilots, birds and ground crew spread out over half the State. And there are birds I remember like number 2-15. That bird reminds me of a thick-headed dog. You can’t blame it for being dumb and how can you not love a Whooping crane.

If you regularly read the Field Journal, you may remember the 2-15 was the ditzy female with the short attention span and a propensity for disrupting the other birds in their efforts to follow our aircraft. On just about every flight, she would charge ahead of the trike or bounce from one wingtip to the other, breaking up the order with each move. She would lead the birds off in another direction or just generally play havoc with our well-organized plans.

Her personality seem most irritating to number 1-15 who was the dominate female in the flock. It reminded me of the halls of high school with the tough guy and the class clown both vying for the attention of their peers. Number 1-15 had the authority, which nobody questioned, but 2-15, could make them all laugh. 

There a hundred factors, from rough air to mood swings that can make the birds break from the aircraft wing and turn back to the pen. Sometimes they do it with purpose like a fighter jet peeling off the formation for an attack. Other times they lack commitment. On one such occasion, number 2-15 led them away but instead of turning back, they flew parallel to the aircraft a hundred yards to the left. Her flock of followers seemed torn between their allegiance to her or to the aircraft. In a test of will, you can stay the course and occasionally they will come back. But if you turn to them, that’s all the confirmation they need and off they go in the direction of the pen. In those few seconds, as 2-15 and I stood our ground, number 1-15 left my wing and pushed her way into the lead of the flock. Once securely in charge, she led them back to the aircraft and we finally turned on course after an hour of trying.

All of this is speculation of course. We have no idea what really happened but it sure looked like a turning point in the dominance structure of the flock.

Because of 2-15’s disruptive behavior, she spend a few legs of the migration in a crate riding in the back of an RV. And as you may recall, we never did get to finish that last flight into St Marks. With her short attention span and broken knowledge of the migration, I was sure she would not make it back to St. Marks this year, but there she was Christmas Eve when Brooke detected her signal near the pensite.

So here we are, all puffed up in our costumes, thinking we are the dominant members of the flock; except that ditsy female who can make them all laugh just showed us up again. It hard not to admire her, scatter brains and all.

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  1. Melanie Cannon January 11, 2017 8:37 am

    I feel so honored that the Whooping Cranes come to visit me each year for the last few years. A few years ago i have a photo of 5 visiting. But last year and this year i have only seen 2. Thankful for the blessing of their visit to Decatur, TN

  2. Dorothy N January 10, 2017 10:48 am

    Wonderful write-up of the fond and not-so-fond memories of OMs work. While 2-15 was going through her antics of disruption, we were sitting comfortably here in our homes taking in every word of the report and even sometimes chuckling. Not so funny when you are up in the air trying to complete one more leg of the long migration journey. A hearty THANK YOU for all of you and your team’s work!!

  3. Pat Carlson January 10, 2017 3:51 am

    I loved reading about 2-15, my little Walworth girl. I wonder what would happen if she and Peanut, another goofy bird, become a pair someday? Would their chicks be just as goofy? I’m smiling at the thought.

  4. Catherine Wohlfeil January 9, 2017 9:59 pm

    Oh now… don’t underestimate 2-15. She was never challenging 1-15 for the flock, she was challenging the aircraft. The big yellow “bird” was trying to take her flock of birds! Her secondary goal was to collect all the data of the wind currents, obstacles, feeding grounds, potential nesting spots, wind turbines, predators, and rest stops between here and Florida, and she got that, by seeming to fly in circles around and around as best she could. If she had missed the lesson, would she be in Florida now?

    I truly believe that 2-15 will be your best breeder, well maybe secondary to 4-13 and the Royal Couple, who just seem to be naturals… She’s got the born stubbornness and determination to lead, protect her chicks, and survive. She took a year off to “contemplate flock life” off on her own, but just maybe this year she may be pining away for a flock to lead… maybe a chick or two? She knows the route…

  5. Peter Smith January 9, 2017 8:18 pm

    Truly an amazing legacy you and OM have created. In that process, a whole population of craniacs, of which I’m proud to be part, are doing our respective things cheering, supporting, and volunteering to support your mission. What a privilege for us to share your world. It’s a tremendous story so far, with many triumphs, and our share of disappointments. I don’t like some of the politics of it by some of the EP decision makers, but I hope that when the current path (with OM grounded from guided migration) seems compelling in its limited progress, you’ll have a chance to return to the larger flocks of old and get them airborne again, from Packerland to NW Florida, all in one piece. Solid flying, lots of protection, access to their post-migration needed healthcare and transmitter updates, and tucked in at night until they have enough skills and size and strength to more ably fend for themselves. That’s my prayer for these birds, from one who so greatly admires them.

    My best wishes to you and the entire OM team, Joe.

  6. RadAudit1 January 9, 2017 5:39 pm

    Glad to read she made the trip to St. Marks. Hope she makes many more round trips.

  7. Mindy January 9, 2017 5:36 pm

    I loved 2-15 and 1-15 as well. They both show true grit and determination, just in different ways. I will miss hearing about 1-15….wish she could have mothered chicks….carry on 2-15…and march to the beat of that different drum!

  8. Maggie Turk January 9, 2017 4:26 pm

    My husband is 86 yrs. old and he says he has never really figured out the thinking of a female. Guess this just confirms his thinking on this subject!!!!! Thanks Joe.

  9. Agneta Sand January 9, 2017 3:56 pm

    Love to hear more stories about how they all are doing now.
    I do miss the daily rush to the computer in the falls during the actual migration – always keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that they all would behave and arrive safely to their destination.
    I miss it, but I also hope with all my heart that you will never have to do things like that again. That all migrating birds will be able to follow their instinct and be safe and sound back and forth forever !
    Is that too much to ask ?

  10. Elsie Sealander January 9, 2017 2:48 pm

    Hi Joe,

    I still believe in survival of the fittest. Back when the whooping crane that we know of today, came into being, it had to survive against predators, weather and climate conditions,etc. Today’s whooping crane still has to survive these natural things but today’s birds have man made obstacles like electric lines, people with guns, etc. To me it takes a bird of a different type to survive these things. Maybe, 2-15 has what it takes in this day and age to survive, along with a bit of luck.

  11. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd January 9, 2017 1:49 pm

    Such fond memories ! Thank you for revisiting them and bringing a smile to my face during the chill of January. Here’s hoping all of the whooping cranes have found a warm spot this Winter.

  12. Sue McCurdy January 9, 2017 1:12 pm

    Thank you Joe for all your work with the Whoopers. I know you missed taking them to St. Marks this year. I miss the one that spent the winter at Paynes Prairie a couple of years ago. She never came back. I was finally told of her death. So sad.

  13. Marilyn Wanser January 9, 2017 12:18 pm

    Thank you, Joe. Great info, great suppositions, great story. Love it. Maybe 2-15 just had to “grow up” and get focused. LOL

  14. Jim S January 9, 2017 11:51 am

    I had just previously watched ‘Finding Dory’…2-15 could be ‘Dory’ of the Eastern Whooper realm.

  15. Dora Giles January 9, 2017 10:39 am

    Thank you for all the years of dedication and love for the cranes and flying, and most of all giving us detailed information about each crane and each flight. Sure hope we can get to see the cranes being trained to fly with Yellow Momma again which was a beautiful sight to behold. Again my thanks and appreciation.


  16. Sue January 9, 2017 9:58 am

    What a comical, frustrating, sensitive, dedicated narrative of mankind and nature! Love all the observations! Makes us all appreciate the team’s loyalty! Many thanks as always