What will happen to whooping cranes now that Operation Migration is ending?


Dressed in one of her crane costumes, Mary O’Brien got to interact with whooping crane colts in the training pen at the White River Marsh Wildlife Area. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Retired Madison environmental scientist Mary O’Brien has spent hundreds of hours sitting at her dining room table — surrounded by yards and yards of white fabric — carefully stitching together bird costumes.

“You can imagine this giant Teletubby white costume … Most people’s reaction was ‘What on Earth is going on here?’”

Those handmade costumes helped ultralight pilots hide their human identities and disguise themselves as oversized whooping cranes, leading flocks of the endangered birds south as part of Operation Migration. The nonprofit was a founding member of the Eastern Migratory Partnership, formed in 1999 to help restore a migrating population of whooping cranes in the Eastern United States.

“I always felt very proud to know that it was my stitches flying high in the air with all these whooping cranes all the way to Florida. And of course, very, very honored to be part of that all,” she says.

Starting in 2001, Operation Migration began receiving whooping crane chicks hatched at captive breeding sites across North America. Some eggs were also pulled from abandoned whooping crane nests. A joint partnership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service called the Whooping Crane Recovery Team oversees the allocation of chicks every year. The team is currently headed by a member of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

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  1. westendoldbird October 23, 2018 5:06 pm

    If it was not for OMI and the live cameras I would have never noticed the western birds migrating through my Alberta province. On October 17, I saw 8 wild whooping cranes. By going to Cranefest and seeing whooping and sandlhill , and hearing the difference in sound that they make , I could tell the ones that I was watching were whooping cranes.They were in a large pond in central Alberta. Funny thing was, we had just left the Calgary Zoo and looking at Wallis(WC) there. Thank you for the knowledge that I gained learning from OMI team and chatters.

  2. GRANDMA October 20, 2018 11:10 am

    I would like to add my thanks also Mary. Thank you for all you have done. I can’t imagine sewing yards and yards of fabric making the costumes for our dedicated OM team. It IS a sad day for all including the many faithful whom have followed this effort to bring back the Whooping Cranes.

  3. Catherine Wohlfeil October 19, 2018 9:34 pm

    Thank you Mary, not only for your dedication, but for words that inspire our hearts…

  4. Lynda Gentry Johnston October 19, 2018 2:15 pm

    This is such a sad story. Many of us who watched the chicks in training and supported OM are devastated. I don’t understand the recovery teams actions. Why not include all methods of increasing crane numbers? I have to suspect politics or personal rivalries. Best of luck to all my heroes in OM.

  5. charlotte mullen October 19, 2018 11:22 am

    It takes a village to raise a whooping crane. Thanks, Mary and all the folks associated with the village that we knew as OM

  6. Elsie Sealander October 19, 2018 8:42 am

    Thank you Mary for this great article. And thank you for volunteering to help increase the Whooping Crane population. A big thanks to all the people involved with Operation Migration.