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.