Goodbye to Old Partners – Hello to New

In 1993, Bill Lishman and I traveled to Virginia to inspect the destination of the first human-led avian migration. We were using trial and error (heavy on the latter) to teach eighteen Canada geese to follow our newly acquired, French-made trikes. Dr. Bill Sladen of Environmental Studies at Airlie, near Warrenton, Virginia would host the geese for the winter; provided we managed to get them there.

The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center was only a few miles away so Dr. Sladen gave us our first introduction to the Head or Research, Dr. George Gee. The Center is a USGS research facility but it sits on the Patuxent Research Refuge, which is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service – twelve thousand acres of forest, wetlands, rivers and ponds quietly hidden between Baltimore and Washington.

Unlike cranes that soar, geese are flap flyers with shorter wings and a large carina or keel bone to support huge pectoral muscles. They could happily flap along beside us for what seemed like hours without getting tired. That ability meant they didn’t need to surf on the wake of the aircraft so conditions didn’t have to be perfect. We flew for an hour or so first thing in the morning, rested for a bit and took off again midday.

Occasionally, we would also fly in the late afternoon. That first migration was documented by ABC’s 20/20 and took us directly over Lake Ontario, through New York State, and Pennsylvania. We clipped the corner of Maryland and West Virginia before landing at Airlie. Surprisingly, we did it in seven days, which back then, seemed like a ridiculously long time to cover 400 miles. Little did we know what was in store. 

Once that migration was over and thirteen of our eighteen geese came back to Ontario on their own, we garnered a little respect from the scientific community. We were still foreigners and non-biologists, and likely to kill ourselves in those flimsy airplanes, but the idea of using the method as a reintroduction tool began to take root. The year we did Fly Away Home with Columbia Pictures, we also raised a small flock of Sandhill cranes to see if they would fly with us. That’s when we adopted the costume idea and developed our isolation-rearing protocol. We attended the annual Whooping Crane Recovery Team meetings. I presented our results and George Gee became my first Whooping crane mentor.

Dr. David Ellis (retired) was an Animal Behaviorist with Patuxent whom I have always referred to as the real Indiana Jones. He has a colorful history, which included working in Mongolia trying to stop the illegal trade of falcons. He has wonderful stories of wandering the Mongolian Steppe building aeries for eagles while being chased by gun toting, local marauders whose truck was fortunately just a little slower than his. David has worked in fifty nations, published 170 papers and has authored four books.

David believed that we learn what not to do — by trying everything. I joined his team one fall when he used an army surplus ambulance to lead Sandhill cranes from Flagstaff, AZ to Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico. The birds were conditioned to follow one of the team members who stood in the open back of the ambulance blowing a whistle. The driver tried to maintain bird speed; a constant 35 mph over winding back-roads, stop signs and all.

That’s when I met most of the crane ecology team from Patuxent. Dan Sprague and Brian Clause were there and a few others. They were young and enthusiastic and off on a great adventure. We raced the back-roads during the day and slept on the ground when the sun went down.

George Gee proposed the study plan for our first Sandhill crane migration experiment. It was designed to answer questions posed by the Recovery Team. He provided the birds from their captive flock and allowed Dan Sprague to come to Ontario for most of the summer. Deke Clarke, Rebecca Pardo and Dan moved into a tiny house that my wife and I rented on Scugog Island outside of Port Perry. We watched many sunsets from the back deck while discussing the protocols and brainstorming ideas. Dan and Brian became a big part of our team. I would spend the spring at Patuxent training birds, and they would spend the summers at my house, or later at the Necedah NWR.

Early studies with Sandhill cranes at Patuxent. We are not telling who was dressed in the costume and carrying the pretend trike.

Brooke spent more than ten years working at Patuxent in the early part of the season where he conducted the imprinting of hundreds of chicks. Of all the partners within WCEP, Patuxent and OM likely worked closest together.

Joe Duff taxis a trike with Sandhill crane chicks in 2000. Note the grey costume and the simple prop guard before we learned our lesson.

After 51 years as the largest Whooping crane captive breeding facility, the Patuxent crane program will close this year due to Federal budget cutbacks. Their collection of seventy-five birds will have to be moved out and the staff reassigned to other positions. The closing of Patuxent was rumored for years but no one expected it to happen so quickly. Had it been scheduled to occur over two years, the staff at Patuxent could have helped hatch and rear any eggs collected from Necedah or maybe produce half of their normal annual output of captive chicks.

The dispersal of the 75 birds in their flock is being managed by the Recovery Team and the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Three organizations, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia, the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida and the Dallas Zoo, were accepted as new breeding facilities. They join the International Crane Foundation, the Calgary Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo, and the Audubon Species Survival Center to make up the seven captive breeding facilities for Whooping cranes.

Creating a new home for Whooping cranes is not as simple as accepting the responsibility. It requires incubation capacities plus isolated, predator-proof pens with water features. The new facilities have well experienced and talented staff to manage the transport, care, hatching and rearing of a critically endangered species.

Many of the birds from Patuxent will be moved early this spring which likely means they will not breed this season – or maybe even next year. Patuxent produced the majority of chicks last year when we had enough to allow for our costume-reared seven, plus ten of the parent-reared birds and seven birds for release in Louisiana. The new partners will do the best they possibly can but we can’t expect too much in this first year of transition. That means it will likely be a lean season in terms of releasable birds.

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  1. Dorothy N March 11, 2018 12:01 am

    Bad decision to close Patuxent. I hope the talented and committed staff will continue to bring their experience and skills to the breeding programs in other locations. I’ll withhold my comments on the decision-makers who promoted the closing of this facility.

  2. Dick Brooks March 8, 2018 11:22 am

    too bad they couldnt wait to move cranes from patuxent until after egg laying season .

  3. Mary Jo March 7, 2018 8:50 pm

    This is very sad news. Which government entity has made this decision and left the project with such little time to plan? Which division of government is this under?

  4. Catherine Wohlfeil March 7, 2018 7:23 pm

    It’s sad to hear Patuxent go by the wayside, but I hope their talent, their drive, their belief in what can be, will live on in those that inherit their destiny. Fly on… don’t look back… follow the morning sun… It still calls you…

  5. Sue McCurdy March 7, 2018 5:07 pm

    I always knew you were a part of Fly Away Home, but you never told us before. I’ve enjoyed following the Whoopers so much, especially a couple of years ago when we had our very own at Paynes Prairie and UF cattle breeding unit. He loved foraging there?

  6. Susanne Shrader March 7, 2018 2:12 pm

    But how did you and Bill Lishman get involved in the very beginning, being as you say foreigners and non-biologists?