Final, Final Thoughts

Operation Migration resigned from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) on August 17, 2018 and as of December 31, the organization will cease to exist. Since our resignation announcement, we have had no official response from our WCEP partners or even an acknowledgement that our letter was received. We are writing this open communication to our supporters, the Recovery Team members and the WCEP partners to provide a better understanding of the logic behind our resignation and to quell some of the rumors that have arisen.

Our resignation was motivated, in part, by the current Recovery Team plan for the Eastern Migratory Population. Although we are critical of that management strategy, we recognize it was made with good intentions and with the best interest of the birds in mind. Because we do not agree with the plan does not mean we are critical of the planners. Each of you brings unique talents and experience to the cause and we respect the knowledge and integrity of all of the members.  

The decision to release only parent-reared Whooping crane chicks within the EMP was based on low reproduction in and around the Necedah NWR. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2015 Vision Document blamed that low prolificacy on the shortcomings of costume-rearing methods; specifically, those employed by Operation Migration. It was hypothesized that “artificiality” of the ultralight-led (UL) method produced inattentive parents and caused the high chick mortality at Necedah. Other than the low productivity numbers, that theory was not supported by research that was shared with the partnership. Ironically, similar costume-rearing strategies appear to be working well in Louisiana.

Rumor one:

Operation Migration wanted to bring back the aircraft-led release method, to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.

Our position:  OM believes that the UL program was effective however, we eventually agreed that it was no longer required to achieve a self-sustaining EMP. After the cross-imprinting problems at Grays Lake, the Recovery Team originally opposed an eastern reintroduction if it depended solely on chance or wild Sandhill cranes to instill proper migration behavior. The UL method solved that problem making the EMP possible, both biologically and politically, and along the way it presented the conservation of Whooping cranes to a global audience. Now there is a core population migrating appropriately and the UL method has served its function. With sufficient allocations and less restrictive release strategies, we believe the EMP can become self-sustaining. We have petitioned for both of those initiatives but our appeals were rejected.  

The current release strategy is limited by the number of chicks that can be parent-reared in the captive breeding centers and by the number of adult pairs within the EMP that could act as surrogates in the fall when the chicks are released. WCEP is also constrained by the disproportionate chick allocation between the EMP and the Louisiana Non-migratory Population.

Rumor two:

Operation Migration is not thinking of the big picture. It is concerned only with the EMP and not the overall recovery of the species and is therefore opposed to the Louisiana Non-Migratory Population.

Our position:  The Louisiana project has been a brilliant success so far with five fledged chicks in only year eight, and some to record-young parents. The project leaders have integrated Whooping cranes into the local farming culture and made them a source of pride throughout the state. And they did it without creating a complex infrastructure like WCEP. Their work is extremely promising and we can understand why the Recovery Team would want to concentrate resources there. However, too much concentration will compromise all the effort it took to build the EMP to its current size. If egg allocations to the EMP remain imbalanced until 2021, when the current Recovery Team strategy expires, natural attrition will undoubtedly reduce the number of EMP breeders that have also fledged a record five chicks in 2018.

Rumor three:

Operation Migration does not believe the EMP can be successful but the five chicks that fledged in 2018 demonstrate that they are mistaken.

Our position: Seventy percent of the parents of those five fledged chicks were released using the Ultralight method. Those successes are an indication that the costume-reared cranes released many years ago are finally learning how to deal with the challenges at Necedah. Their success has little to do with the current parent-rearing strategy. The results of this latest experiment will only be revealed a few years from now, if ever. With continued low allocations, by that time natural attrition will have decreased the number of adult cranes in the EMP, even among the breeders that produced those five chicks and much of the work WCEP did will have been lost.

It is also worth noting that parent-rearing has been tested before, even with a crane species, but it failed to significantly increase productivity.  Additionally, survival rates are lower among parent-reared juveniles that are released just before their first migration, with no wild experience, and months before they would normally be separated from their parents. Add this to the lower allocations planned until 2021 and the sample size will assuredly be too small for any confidence in the results. Finally, the EMP contains such a diverse mix of release strategies, from wild-hatched chicks to DAR and UL reared cranes, that properly evaluating the potential of a parent-reared strategy within that amalgam — will be inconclusive. If a parent-reared crane survives for five years and breeds with a DAR or a UL adult, how can their success or failure be attributed to the rearing technique of one or the other? 

In summary, there is no indication that parent-rearing has worked in the past, too few birds are being released to make it work now and there is likely no way to evaluate it in the future. Even as a learning opportunity, it has little merit. And while this experiment is underway, attrition will take a severe toll on the population it took WCEP so much time and money to establish. 

In-The-Field Parent Rearing:

In an attempt to more closely replicate the natural process, Operation Migration proposed raising parent-reared chicks in the field rather than at one of the captive centers.  We requested that two to four parent-reared chicks be relocated to White River Marsh in the spring at 40 days of age or younger. They would have been housed in our isolated pens deep in the marsh. A non-breeding pair of captive cranes, not yet reallocated from the Patuxent flock, could have acted as alloparents. The chicks would have been slowly introduced to those adults in divided pens that provided upland foraging areas and wetland roosting sites all within an isolated, top-netted enclosure that was monitored by a live, 24 hour camera. They would have learned to forage for natural foods provided within that compound and been released daily for flight practice. Rather than learning to fly in small pens at the breeding centers, they would fledge naturally and become familiar with the wetlands that would eventually become their summer range. In addition, they would have opportunities to interact with the wild Whooping cranes that use the same habitat.

This proposal would have followed the directives of the Recovery Team and produced parent-reared chicks that were already acclimated to the introduction site. They would have been strong flyers by migration time and maybe even familiar with adult con-specifics that could guide them south. This rearing strategy would have augmented the number of parent-reared cranes released into the EMP and relieved some of the pressure on the captive breeding centers that would otherwise be responsible for raising PR chicks until the fall when they are normally shipped to Wisconsin. We offered to cover the cost of relocation and all the summer expenses including the fall tracking, however, that proposal was rejected. The only justification provided was that reassigning two captive, non-breeding cranes from the Patuxent flock put too much pressure on the team responsible for their distribution. We were also told that it seemed like “too much of a panic” to organize before the season began. That meeting took place in January 2018. Neither the alloparents nor the chicks were needed until that June.

Sandhill cranes as an analogue species:

Although Sandhill cranes generally use different habitat than Whooping cranes, within the EMP, they are regularly seen foraging in upland areas together and roosting in the same wetlands. Because of the cryptic coloration of one species but not the other, they employ different defense strategies but they are both susceptible to the same predators. The similarities are close enough that Sandhill cranes provide a good analogue species to evaluate the potential of habitat for a Whooping crane reintroduction. Ten years after the first indications of low recruitment at Necedah, WCEP was finally allowed to evaluate the fecundity of Sandhill cranes. The 2017 results demonstrate that natural occurring Sandhills had a success rate similar to the reintroduced Whooping cranes. With late spring snow, followed by flooding, 2018 may have been an anomalous breeding season however, forty-seven Sandhill chicks were radio tagged at Necedah but only four survived to fledge. By comparison, at White River Marsh, twenty-two chicks were tagged and eighteen fledged.   

Based on observations and tests with avian predators, the researchers also found that the Whooping cranes at Necedah appear to defend their offspring just as aggressively and persistently as the wild Sandhill cranes.  

These study results suggest that the problem of high chick mortality has more to do with environmental issues at Necedah than it does with rearing strategy. However, when Operation Migration proposed augmenting the number of chicks released into the EMP by raising a cohort of costume-reared Whooping cranes at White River Marsh during the 2018 season, that request was denied by the Recovery Team Coordinator without explanation other than a directive to follow the existing strategy.

Rumor four:

Operation Migration is upset with WCEP and left the partnership as a self-serving display of defiance.

Our position:  When WCEP was established, the partners collectively developed the release strategies and requested approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Recovery Team, which was generally granted. Now the Service has pulled rank and dictates to WCEP, assigning release techniques and limiting allocations, often without providing research to support those directives or allowing team discussions. In Louisiana, costume-rearing is used successfully and it is preferred over parent-rearing however those requests are approved by the Service and the Recovery Team.    

For almost ten years, little was done by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the cause of high chick mortality at Necedah while the population hovered around 100 individuals.  Nor has there ever been discussions about possible black fly suppression as promised in the 2015 FWS Vision Document. Instead, our aircraft-led method was repeatedly criticized for being too expensive, despite self-funding, plus we were blamed for the low reproduction at Necedah and the failure of the project.

When the Partnership was limited to the parent-reared technique and lower allocations, Operation Migration opposed those decisions. However, our concerns were not addressed, our offers to raise additional chicks were rejected and no reasonable justification was provided. Throughout this process, our complaint was not with WCEP but with the way the Service was dictating to the Partnership, despite the superior Whooping crane experience of the latter.  Our parting message was intended to support WCEP and to protect the EMP.

For many years, access was restricted to the Necedah Refuge so WCEP was not able to properly investigate the causes of chick mortality or the productivity of Sandhill cranes for comparative analysis. That isolationism began with the unworkable flight restrictions on chick training imposed by the Refuge during our last year at Necedah. Further evidence is the almost complete lack of Whooping crane displays or education materials in the new visitor’s center — or on the Refuge webpage. Despite denials, the visitor’s center was created, in part, as a result of the Whooping crane project yet there remains almost no recognition of one of the most high-profile, wildlife projects ever to occur in the U.S. This is not a campaign for credit of WCEP’s actions on the refuge but an indication of the Service’s regard for the EMP, the respect it has for its partners or the value of their investment. Thousands of people supported the efforts of WCEP to reintroduce Whooping cranes and millions followed the progress. The Necedah Refuge was the center of that project however, recognition for those accomplishments by the Service is conspicuously absent.

In the beginning, WCEP estimated that this reintroduction costs the partners $1.6 million dollars per year. Almost two-thirds of that was contributed by ICF and Operation Migration. Experimenting with the EMP by limiting allocations and mandating restrictive release strategies for the next three years while the population continues to languish, is not good stewardship of WCEP’s investment.

Rumor five:

OM lost a significant portion of its funding and could no longer afford to participate. Now they blame the partnership for their demise:

Our position: Just like any other partner, our funding depended on having a viable role to play within WCEP. At the annual face-to-face WCEP meeting in 2016 when the UL method was ended, the Guidance Team proposed that OM’s new role would be tracking the EMP cranes. We had the expertise, the equipment and the manpower to provide that service, however that role was provided by ICF.

Our proposal to augment releases into the EMP by raising a costume reared cohort was rejected with no rationale other than to follow the Recovery Team’s Egg Allocation directive. Our idea of in-the-field parent-rearing was also vetoed without justification.  The only viable Whooping crane role left for us would have been to assist in monitoring the four parent-reared chicks that were released in the fall of 2018.

For many years Operation Migration presented our social media audience with a supportive and positive version of the decisions made by WCEP. When the Fish and Wildlife Service exercised its authority over the Partnership and publicly blamed Operation Migration for the failure of the EMP, we were forced to defend our methods and our contribution, but we eventually agreed to accept that decision and presented it in a positive light to our supporters. As the success of the EMP became increasingly compromised by restrictive release strategies and limited allocations, we campaigned for more chicks and proposed alternative methods. Those offers were rejected and if history is any guide, we suspect the Sandhill research we funded at Necedah and White River will also be ignored.

In an attempt to be good partners we did not share those conflicts with our audience but there are a hundred stories to tell like our unceremonious ejection from the Necedah Refuge and the purging of all things WCEP. We were told that there was no room on the 44,000-acre refuge for the WCEP donor-recognition board. At the opening of the Whooping crane inspired Necedah visitor’s center, no one from OM was invited.

During the last WCEP face-to-face meeting we were told that the Recovery Team was not responsible for the welfare of one of the WCEP partners. We have heard the same mantra from the Fish and Wildlife Service many times and it is a valid assertion.  But if Operation Migration had taken the same stance when we provided the lion’s share of the funding, labor, and expertise to fulfill the mandate of the Recovery Team and the Fish and Wildlife Service, there wouldn’t be an Eastern Migration Population today.

In the end, we had hoped that our departure would prompt the other partners to question the current management strategies and their implications to the original goal. The EMP has the potential to succeed and the work now being done at Necedah to determine the cause of low productivity and to manage for Whooping cranes is very encouraging.  The five fledged chicks in 2018 are also promising and we hope that milestone prompts the Service to reconsider the viability of the EMP and concentrate more on its potential success.

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Twenty-one years ago I sent an email to Bill Lishman, inquiring about volunteer opportunities. It was the fall of 1997 and months went by before I received a response. You see, at that time, Bill and Joe were actually on migration and without email access.

I believe it was January 1998 when Bill responded and asked me to meet for lunch. Little did I know, this would lead to a 20-year career.

When I look back over the years there are many highs and lows, and thankfully, the highs outnumber the lows.

I was fortunate to work with the most endangered crane in the world. I held them in my hands. They counted on me to do so without harming them. It was an honor and a privilege and I will be forever grateful.

I worked alongside some of the most dedicated people I will ever meet. Weekends were just two additional work days. Whatever it took to get the job done, we did it… Placing the well-being of the Whooping cranes at the top of the priority list – always.

I am thankful for their friendship – in the past, present and I hope, well into the future.

As an organization, Operation Migration was fortunate to have some generous, caring supporters that helped us fund our work and we succeeded in establishing a migratory flock of Whooping cranes in an area they had been wiped out more than a century ago. No small feat and I hope you are proud and will continue to be a loud voice for the Whooping crane and other species that cannot speak for themselves.

This is what gives me hope these birds will survive.

Thank you – for everything…

Final Thoughts…

Guest Author: David Sakrison

In 2005, Terry Kohler, a Wisconsin conservationist and philanthropist hired me, an aviation journalist, to write a book about his participation in three avian recovery projects, trumpeter swans, Siberian cranes, and whooping cranes. Over the next two years, I interviewed people at the cutting edge of whooping crane recovery – George Archibald, Tom Stehn, John French, Kent Clegg, Joe Duff, and others. And their passion rubbed off on me. I became a card-carrying Craniac.

When OM moved its field operations from Necedah to White River Marsh, just 20 miles from my home, I had the privilege of working alongside Joe, Heather Ray, and others, helping to build the whooper’s new home in record time. When I was asked to join the board of OM, I needed no push.

It has been my honor and privilege to play a small part in this unique endeavor, to work with and to know as friends a group of people who are so passionate and so dedicated to a cause greater than themselves. I will sorely miss it.

But more important, the survival of the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers is far from assured. Despite all that OM and its supporters have done to reintroduce this majestic bird to the eastern U.S., the flock may not endure, lost to indifference? neglect? from the powers that be.

The decision by OM’s board and staff to cease operations was difficult and heartbreaking. But in the end, it was the only ethical choice. It is my fervent hope that WCEP & FWS may yet give full support to the Eastern Migratory Flock, that the introduction of captive-bred whoopers into the wild will again outpace the flock’s attrition, and that my grandchildren and their grandchildren will still hear the whooper’s ancient, haunting call in eastern skies.

For the birds,

–David Sakrison, Ripon, WI

  Late of the board of directors of Operation Migration

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Thoughts as the Year Draws to a Close…

Guest Author: Jeff Weingarz, Acting Chair, Board of Operation Migration

I am sitting here at my kitchen table looking out the window at the remaining snow from November –thus far December has reverted back to normal weather and temps for this time of year – but I am wondering if we will be seeing a white Christmas this year.  My shovel lies at the ready….  (or is it “lays?”)

While the question of the forecast rests in the back of my mind, my thoughts turn to the cranes – specifically all of those gentle giants that were tenderly raised in captivity from eggs that were retrieved from one of many different possible origins, trained to fly, and then to migrate behind a large metal bird across the fields and forests of the Midwest and southeast states… Where are they now? Hopefully someplace warmer than here – maybe having an early lunch of blue crab, or gliding carelessly on thermals high above the gulf.  Do they have any cognition of their past, their present, or for that matter, to what lengths that humans have gone to over the last 20 years in order to insure the right to their existence?  Especially in light of the fact that it was the same human species that naively and carelessly brought these great creatures to the brink of extinction just 100 years ago?  

Now my mind is wandering a little father along…. I would like to hope that while my love of Whooping Cranes goes far; my love and faith in humanity goes farther – because it is only through increasing our knowledge of our environment that we will be able to understand that everything we do individually or as a society impacts the world that we live in and its finite resources, and that we need to react and plan accordingly.   We are really only beginning to grasp the impacts that humanity has made on our planet – some are obvious; some not so much.   But if we can just understand that it took hundreds of millions of years (OK, 4 billion years to be closer to the mark) for the earth’s various ecosystems to evolve and develop naturally – the balance of billions of species of plant life and animal life on our lands and in our oceans, the correct mixture of gasses and elements to support that life, and the overall delicate foundation that the food chain exists upon.   Now, after just 200 years of humanity embracing the industrial revolution, our ecosystem is faced with many grave threats that we never could have imagined even 20 years ago when OM was just an idea.   While many of us disagree with each other as to the degree of severity, one only needs to look at what we have already put in place to offset earlier acts to verify what should already be obvious – fishing quotas in our oceans, banning of CFCs, soil conservation policies to name but just a couple – these law and policies show that from a consensus point of view, we as a society have agreed that humanity has had an impact, and that we need to act expeditiously, and with necessity, and yes, even with enthusiasm to offset previous damage we have done to our ecosystem.   I say “with enthusiasm” because conservation can be likened to exercise – we know it is for our own good; it takes a LOT of work, we sometimes dread it because of potential aches and pains (and insurmountable odds), but in the end, we feel good about ourselves, our bodies, and in the case of conservation, our planet!!   

Bringing that thought back to the cranes, it is basically this mindset that the Operation Migration team as well as all of their partners in WCEP have embraced over the last 20 years in order to make a positive impact on the environment in the form of Whooping Crane conservation….   It shows in the progress that has been made to-date with the EMP, and with good science, strong support and continued participation the WCEP partners (as well as some good old-fashioned luck), the cranes will be able to grasp a foothold in this new human-dominated ecosystem and thrive.

And that is where my faith in humanity lays…   or is it “lies”…?   

On an ending note, all of the Board and Staff of Operation Migration wish all of our families, friends, partners, and supporters a wonderful holiday season and a prosperous New Year – we so appreciate your dedication to Whooping Cranes and the unselfish and generous support that all of you have given us over the years.  It has been an honor for me to serve on the Board for an organization that has defined the meaning of integrity and sacrifice for the cause. I am forever humbled.


Jeff Weingarz

Board of Directors

This is gonna be boring…

I have procrastinated this as long as possible – it’s time to write my final post for the Field Journal. There are several reasons for my procrastination. For one thing, CFO work is pretty boring unless you’re a ‘number cruncher’. I happen to get excited when I need to create new Excel spreadsheet, but that’s not great grist for this mill. Also, I have struggled with what to say in a ‘final farewell’ post. The third, probably most significant, reason is that I am a procrastinator. Always have been, always will be.

A few people have asked me what in the world I’m still doing since the decision has already been made to dissolve the corporations. Others have asked me what happens to money that OM has left after we’re done with the work of shutting down the two corporations. Read on if you’re curious about these momentous questions, or if you simply don’t have anything better to do right now.

There’s a LOT to do. If you’ve been following the Friends of Operation Migration Facebook page, you’ve seen pictures of the office as Joe, Heather, and Chris gradually emptied it out. There were archives of records to sort out – what to keep, what to shred, what to recycle. There was office equipment to be sold, donated, or dumped. I realize this doesn’t answer the question about what I’ve been doing, although I did go up to Ontario last week to help out and to meet with our accountant. It was cold.

OM, like any business, subscribes or takes advantage of a lot of services – all must be identified and cancelled, from EZPass accounts to credit cards to internet and phone services, and so on. And timing must be carefully coordinated so I don’t pull the rug out from Joe’s Canadian credit card before he pays for the final truck repairs. Speaking of trucks, trailers, and motor homes, all that equipment had to be sold – some in the US and some in Canada. We even used an auctioneer in Wisconsin to get rid of a ton of small equipment like trailer hitches, tools, water hoses, pumps, and the like. We still have one truck left to sell – click here if you’re interested!

The process to dissolve a corporation in New York, where our US corporation is registered, is complicated. Pulling together all the forms, affidavits, etc. etc. for that process has taken a while. It’s much easier in Canada, but still takes time to research the PROcess and then put everything together.

That’s probably all you ever wanted to know about what I’ve been working on, so let me answer the second question – if we have money left after we sell all the physical assets, where does it go. The answer is the same in both countries – it must be donated to ‘like-minded non-profits’. OM’s mission is migratory species conservation and education, so any non-profit who will receive part of our final distribution has to align with those objectives. Where possible, we would choose organizations with a Whooping Crane connection because that has been OM’s specific labor of love, although our mission is not species-specific.

The decision as to who would receive our final donation(s) belongs to our Members, and they made that decision on September 24th, based on recommendations from the Board of Directors. OM’s U.S. corporation will make its final donations to Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Zoo New England, the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, and the International Crane Foundation. In all cases, the donations are to be used specifically for Whooping Crane conservation and education.

Our final Canadian funds will be donated to FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program). FLAP is a registered charity that pours all its efforts “into protecting migratory birds from the life-threatening dangers of human-created environments.”

Once these donations have been made, the coffers will be empty. I will then work with the accountants in Canada and the U.S. to close the books, do a final audit, and prepare the final filings.


Here’s the part that I’ve been especially procrastinating… the final paragraph. How to express what Operation Migration has meant to me in the few years that I’ve been involved. The short answer is that it has meant everything – being directly involved in helping to save a species, working with (and learning from) such passionate, hard-working, creative, and entrepreneurial people, wow, just wow, what a privilege! I’m sad that it’s coming to an end – not for me, a ‘short-timer’, but for my friends who have given their heart and souls for 15, 20, 25 years, fighting uphill battles year after year on behalf of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes, a population that did not exist until Operation Migration led the 2001 cohort into the skies on the first aircraft-guided southward migration. 

I need to stop because now I can’t see what I’m typing. Thank you Operation Migration for the incredible opportunity to be involved in something so exciting and meaningful (unlike insurance). And now I have to go work on an Excel spreadsheet. Yay!

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Over the years we have had many friends of Operation Migration who volunteered their time and expertise to become members of our Board of Directors.

Like volunteers for all nonprofits, there are those who help out a little when it’s convenient, and those who give selflessly. Some attend the monthly meetings and must be reminded of what was decided at the last gathering, while others show up with new ideas and the willingness to make them happen.

Over the years we have had our share of both but our current list of Directors fit soundly into the second category. They have followed the organization for years, contribute time, talent and tenacity and have stood by us, literally to the end.

Doug Annes is one of those Directors. His wife, Christy Smith got Doug involved when she took on the responsibility of coordinating the first Berlin/Princeton Whooping Crane Festival in 2012. The more Doug learned, the more interested he became and he joined the Board that same year.

Doug took the time to share a parting message and we are grateful for his hard work, his friendship and his eloquence…

For a little more than twenty years Operation Migration has performed miracles. Teaching wild birds to migrate using small sport aircraft was an act of visionary boldness. I hesitate to call these aircraft “planes” but fly they did. Cranes would not usually follow such aircraft but OM did the hands-on work of imprinting, training, and practicing until the birds could both follow the aircraft and remain wild.

As we face immanent and accelerating climate change, habitat destruction, and species extinction, it is sometimes hard to have faith in mankind. The image of the cranes flying behind the ultralight aircraft is powerfully romantic, suggesting a partnership between Man and Nature. It communicated a faith that we can work with Nature to find a Harmony that does not poison and destroy. OM offered a poetry of hope.

Having worked a bit with OM, I am aware of the days and hours devoted by the OM staff to executing this vision. The devil is in the details and the OM project was chock full of details. The OM staff never failed to impress with their attention to these endless details. Awakening before dawn, attending to the birds regardless of the weather, adapting to the vagaries of individual animal behavior, waiting, the endless waiting for the requisite weather conditions to fly, it was always something and the OM staff never hesitated.

I engaged with OM as I left my middle years, and faced my own unforeseen need to migrate to my older years. Little did I understand at the time, but the entire OM project provided metaphors for my own life journey. Leaving the “homeland” of a younger body and a lifelong career, required a migration of a sort to a new place, perhaps vaguely familiar but full of uncharted spaces.

Most of all, I will treasure the friendships of the OM staff and supporters some of whom I may never see again. Looking back, it was a vibrant time of life infused with purpose, intoxicating relationships, and sometimes wildly and improbably beautiful.

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EMP Whooping Crane Update

Whooping Crane Update – November 27, 2018 

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month Whooping Cranes have left Wisconsin and many have reached their wintering locations. Many birds are still on the move! A huge thank-you to the staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the Whooping Crane Eastern Migratory Population.

Population Estimate

The current estimated population size is 101 (45 F, 53 M, 3 U). As of 27 November, approximately 19 Whooping Cranes are in Illinois, 33 are in Indiana, 1 may still be in Michigan, 7 are in Kentucky, 5 are in Tennessee, 11 are in Alabama, and 1 is in Georgia. The remaining birds’ locations have not been confirmed in the last month or they have left Wisconsin but haven’t yet been confirmed further south. See maps below.

Wild-hatched birds

As of 27 November, five wild-hatched chicks are still alive, all of which have left Wisconsin with their parents.

W1_18 (F) is in Knox Co, IN with her parents.

W3_18 (F) is likely in Hopkins Co, KY with her parents but we have not yet confirmed IDs.

W5_18 (M) is still with his parents in Greene Co, IN.

W6_18 (M) is now with his parents in Lawrence Co, IL.

W10_18 (U) is with parents in Greene Co, IN. 

2018 Releases

16_11 (M), 73_18 (F), and 74_18 (M) have left Wisconsin and are currently in Jasper Co, IN.

77_18 (M) left Wisconsin with Sandhill Cranes and is currently in Lowndes Co, GA. 

2017 Wild-hatched chicks

W3_17 (F) migrated south with 11_15 (M) and is now at Wheeler NWR in Morgan Co, AL.

W7_17 (F) is still at Wheeler NWR in Morgan Co, AL.

Parent-Reared 2017 Cohort

19_17 (M) and 25_17 (M) migrated to Jackson Co, AL, where they wintered last year.

28_17 (M) left WI and is now in Jasper Co, IN.

24_17 (M) was in Greene Co, IN, but has left and is now in Lawrence Co, IL.

72_17 (M) left MI and is now in Jay Co, IN.

36_17 (F) migrated with females 2_15 and 28_05 from Wisconsin to Kentucky, where the remains of 36_17 were found on 21 November. The other two females are now in Meigs Co, TN. The cause of death is not yet known.

38_17 (F) migrated with 63-15 (M) to Randolph Co, IL.

39_17 (F) is in Jasper Co, IN and has been seen associating with other Whooping Cranes as well as Sandhill Cranes.

Costume-Reared 2017 Cohort

7_17 (F) migrated to Cumberland Co, IL, presumably with 4_14 (M).

3_17 (M) was last seen with 30_16 (M), 5_12 (M), and 67_15 (F) in Green Lake Co, WI. The group has not been seen in WI recently, but have not yet been confirmed further south.

4_17 (M) and 6_17 (F) are now in Alexander Co, IL.

1_17 (M), 2_17 (F) were in LaSalle Co, IL, with 10_15 (F) and 4_13 (M) but then left and are now in Marshall Co, KY. It appears they are still on the move.

8_17 was last seen in Sangamon Co, IL in May, and then showed up at Wheeler NWR in Morgan Co, AL, during November.


The carcass of 36_17 (F) was collected on 21 November in Kentucky, but the cause of death is not yet known (see above).

Whooping Crane #38-17

It would appear this young parent-reared female Whooping crane has finally had enough of Horicon Marsh and is heading south for the first time.

Regular readers will recall this now 1 1/2 year old Whooping crane became the first bird in the EMP, which failed to migrate. Instead, she chose to stay at Horicon Marsh for the entire winter season after her release. Refuge staff put out supplemental corn for her and she somehow survived the brutal cold.

This past summer, she met up with a 3 year old male Direct-autumn Release (DAR) crane, #63-15 and he seems to have convinced her to head south with him.

Taking a look at their route thus far, I’d hazard a guess that he is taking her to his old winter stomping grounds in Randolph County, IL but time will tell.

According to her GSM device, these two left Horicon midday on Nov. 21st.

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Journey of the Whooping Crane

If you’re in the Corpus Christi, TX area be sure to tune in tomorrow evening to catch “Journey of the Whooping Crane on KEDT – the local Public Television station. Check local listings for show times.

“Journey of the Whooping Crane” is a one-hour natural history documentary produced for Georgia Public Broadcasting illustrating the remarkable life story of Whooping Cranes. At five feet tall, and a wingspan over seven feet, the Whooping Crane has the distinction of being North America’s tallest bird and sadly, also one of its rarest. Habitat loss and hunting pressure from European settlers in the late 1800’s reduced the population of this iconic animal to just fifteen birds by 1940. Since then, in an intense effort to protect and restore the species, a broad coalition of NGO’s, private interests, and government agencies has worked collectively and tirelessly to nurture the remaining wild flock to its current population of about six hundred birds.

Check out the films website to learn more. Digital download (purchase) will be available sometime in December.

Flashback Friday

In preparation for our eventual closing, we’ve been spending the past couple of weeks going through 25 years of accumulated “stuff” at the office. 

It’s a bittersweet process to say the least but I came across this photo and wanted to share it… 

These are the “actor geese” featured in the film Fly Away Home. Many people don’t realize that after their starring role in the film, the geese were led on a migration to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in South Carolina, where they wintered before returning home to southern Ontario the following spring.

Joe Duff leads 31 Canada geese over Virginia in the fall of 1995, Photo: Operation Migration

#fbf #flashbackfriday

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Heading South

This past spring we saw male Whooping crane #4-14 (Peanut) capture the heart of a young female crane #7-17. The latter was a costume-reared crane raised at White River Marsh and Peanut was an aircraft-guided bird with a leg injury and a stabilizing brace, which made him miss the majority of the southward migration flights. This led to him being retrieved from Wabash Island and driven back to Green Lake County, WI in the spring of 2015.

Because of his past, he has become a favorite of most Craniacs and our team.

Another reason we are so invested in him is that he stayed in the White River Marsh area so we’re hopeful he will eventually nest and raise young there.

He and #7-17 spent the entire spring and summer just south of the small town of Princeton and were occasionally spotted by the locals.

Last week we received GSM hits indicating #7-17 was on the move south and we can only assume Peanut is still with her. Have a look at their flight path.

With a great tailwind, these two covered close to 200 miles in their first 4 hours of flight.

If their flight plan is similar to last fall they should arrive at Wheeler NWR any day now. (Let’s just hope he avoids Wabash Island).



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Cranes on the Move…

Photographer Gordon Garcia sent along the following images for us to share. They feature two young male Parent-Reared Whooping cranes #’s 19-17 & 25-17.

These two are currently on their way south and stopped in Kane County, IL for a few days. They may return to the same wintering area used last year, which was Jackson County, Alabama.

Whooping crane #19-17 on the right and #25-17 on the left. Photo: Gordon Garcia

This is a fantastic photo to illustrate the difference between N. America’s two crane species. Sandhills on the left and the two male whoopers on the right. Photo: Gordon Garcia

#25-17 has a conversation with a Sandhill crane. Photo: Gordon Garcia

#19-17 with the double white legband in the foreground and #25-17 in the background. Photo: Gordon Garcia

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EMP Update

November 1, 2018 

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month migration has begun! A huge thank-you to the staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the Whooping Crane Eastern Migratory Population.

Population Estimate

The current estimated population size is 102 (46 F, 53 M, 3 U). As of 1 November, around 54 Whooping Cranes are in Wisconsin, 3 in Michigan, 9 in Illinois, 13 in Indiana, 2 in Kentucky, and 1 in Alabama. The remaining birds’ locations have not been confirmed in the last month or two. See map below.

Wild-hatched birds

As of 1 November, five wild-hatched chicks are still alive, all of which have fledged, are with their parents, and are banded.

W1_18 (F) is still in Juneau Co with her parents and is now banded.

W3_18 (F) is still with her parents in Adams Co.

W5_18 (M) has migrated and is now with parents W3_10 and 8_04 in Greene Co, IN.

W6_18 (M) is still with his parents 1-04 and 16-07, but they have left Juneau Co, WI, and have not yet been seen further south.

W10_18 (U) is still with its parents 4-08 and 23-10, but they have not been seen on territory in Juneau Co, nor further south yet, but are presumably on migration or staging somewhere in Wisconsin. 

2018 Releases

16_11 (M), 73_18 (F), and 74_18 (M) are all still at Horicon NWR in Dodge Co, WI, and are doing well.

76_18 (F) was released at White River Marsh in Green Lake Co, WI, on 2 October. She moved around the area on her own for a week or so, and was seen with other Whooping Cranes. Her carcass was found on 12 October in the same field 30-16 (M) and 3-17 (M) were seen. The cause of death is likely predation.  

77_18 (M) was also released at White River Marsh, on 11 October. He associated with target pair 5-12 and 67-15 for a while, but is now with a group of Sandhill Cranes. He is still in Green Lake Co, and seems to be doing well. 

Parent-reared Whooping crane #77-18 with Sandhills. Photo: Tom Schultz

Whooping crane 77-18. Photo: Tom Schultz

2017 Wild-hatched chicks

W3_17 (F) is still in Adams Co, WI, and is now with 11_15 (M). She has also been seen with her parents and their new chick, 24_09, 42_09, and W3_18.

W7_17 (F) has left Minnesota and as of 24 October was the first Whooping Crane to arrive at Wheeler NWR in Morgan Co, AL.

Parent-Reared 2017 Cohort

19_17 (M) and 25_17 (M) left Polk Co, WI and are currently in Kane Co, IL.

28_17 (M) is still in Sauk Co, WI.

24_17 (M) is in Dane Co, WI.

72_17 (M) has been moving around a little bit and is now in Jackson Co, MI.

38_17 (F) is still in Dodge Co, WI with 63-15 (M).

39_17 (F) is in Winnebago Co, WI.

Costume-Reared 2017 Cohort

7_17 (F) is still with 4_14 (M) in Green Lake Co.

3_17 (M) is still with 30_16 (M) and sometimes also with 5_12 and 67_15 in Green Lake Co, WI.

4_17 (M) and 6_17 (F) are on the move and were in Shawano Co, WI at the end of October.

1_17 (M), 2_17 (F) are currently in Winnebago Co, IL and are sometimes associating with 10_15 (F) and 4_13 (M).

8_17 was last seen in Sangamon Co, IL in May, but her whereabouts are still unknown.


The carcass of 76_18 was collected on 12 October in Green Lake Co, WI (see above).

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Operation Migration Resigns from WCEP – Dissolves Organization

Operation Migration took flight 25 years ago when two artists-turned-aviators developed a method of teaching birds a new migratory route. The innovative approach helped stabilize the dwindling population of the magnificent Whooping crane.

Bill Lishman and Joe Duff developed the aircraft-guided migration method into an effective means of reintroducing endangered Whooping cranes into an area they had not inhabited in over a century.

Our first migration flight leading Whooping cranes occurred in 2001 – shortly after the 9-11 attack on the United States. It was a time when the nation needed an uplifting story; one of ordinary people working to save an endangered, North American species.

For 15 years, Operation Migration pilots and a dedicated ground crew led Whooping cranes on a journey toward survival. During those years, we contributed more than $10 million dollars and covered 17,457 miles with a total of 186 trusting Whooping cranes trailing off our wingtips.

Each of the cranes that survived the winter period in Florida returned north the following spring, and continued to migrate annually thereafter. Gradually, the number of cranes began to increase, giving hope for the species, which in the 1940s numbered only 15.

The aircraft-guided migration method was ended in the fall of 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a document titled “FWS Vision for the Next 5-year Strategic Plan” that claimed the method was “too artificial.” They suggested that cranes raised by our costumed handlers resulted in inattentive parents that did not adequately protect their offspring.

We continued work for another 3 years based upon our belief that the goal of a self-sustaining Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes was attainable. However, with new management directives authorized by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and implemented by Region 3 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we no longer believe this goal to be achievable.

As a result, we cannot continue, in good faith, to accept contributions or justify assigning our staff and volunteers to carry out the work outlined in the strategic plan imposed on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

This led us to an extremely difficult decision: The management and Board of Directors are withdrawing Operation Migration from membership and participation in WCEP and dissolving the organization. This decision is heartbreaking for us all but we have exhausted all possible avenues to avoid this outcome.

Supporters from around the world have generously contributed to Operation Migration’s aircraft-guided work, its successful costume-rearing program, and education and research efforts, all of which have contributed to the recovery of Whooping crane. When our work began there were fewer than 500 Whooping cranes in North America. Today, the species total stands at more than 700 – a significant part of the increase is attributable to your help.

While disappointed that we were unable to achieve our long-term goal to establish a self-sustaining Whooping crane population, we take great pride in Operation Migration’s accomplishments, which your support and time helped to make possible:

  • Hundreds of thousands of people are more aware of the plight of Whooping cranes and wetlands thanks to our blog posts for the past 19 years;
  • Our partnership with Journey North, a distance learning program, brought information about Whooping cranes to millions of school-aged children worldwide;
  • We hosted the first-ever LIVE streaming camera featuring wild Whooping cranes; 
  • We raised awareness for the Whooping crane and gained global attention for the efforts to save them through the aircraft-guided program for 15 years. Our work was featured in numerous news stories, documentaries and published in many books and magazines that inspired people to care about, and take action for these vulnerable cranes;
  • The reintroduced Whooping cranes are avoiding humans, selecting proper habitat, pairing with other Whooping cranes and are producing offspring;
  • Aircraft used in our work are now on display at three distinguished locations: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), as reminders that people can take innovative action to help wildlife species in trouble;
  • Operation Migration contributed images to numerous educational textbooks over the past 20 years to help tell the story of Whooping cranes to students of all ages;
  • Our work garnered the attention and support of President Jimmy Carter and noted conservationist Jane Goodall.

We are grateful for the awards we have received over the years, which include:

  • 2002 National Wildlife Federation “Conservation Achievement Award;
  • 2003 Canada Post “Canadian Environmental Award”;
  • 2004 The Whooping Crane Conservation Association “Honor Award”;
  • 2006 American Birding Association, Partners in Flight “Outstanding Contribution to Bird Conservation”;
  • 2009 U.S. Dept. Of The Interior “Partners in Conservation Award”.

So many accomplishments, and all achieved with your help. We want to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all Operation Migration members, supporters, volunteers, and staff (past and present).

Your financial and emotional support kept us going more than you will ever know during many stressful and trying periods over the past 18 years of this reintroduction project. You have been like family to us.

There would not be Whooping cranes migrating over eastern North America without your support.

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