By Joe Duff
When I was a kid I remember how a tree didn’t look as tall when you were standing on the ground as it did from the top when you climbed into the upper limbs. I guess your perception of distance depends on your perspective.
Driving one of our motorhomes we averaged 50 miles per hour for roughly 23 hours to make it home from Florida. Although it took 57 days to lead the birds that same distance, the trip home seemed to take much longer, at least in terms of miles. Sitting behind the wheel for hour after hour, it was hard to believe we kept the bird’s attention for that long. Sometimes the fact that they will follow our aircraft all the way to Florida impresses even us.
Our early arrival in Florida this year can be attributed to a number of factors. Some might suggest that it was easier because we only had six birds, and that may be partially true, but in 2002 we completed the migration in only 49 days. That year we had 16 birds, and we did it again the following year in 54 days with another 16.
Maybe it has to do with global warming. I am not qualified to enter into a debate about the cause of climate change but the fact that it is changing is undeniable. With a world population of over seven billion people I think the cause is obvious, but I also find it hard to believe that it is changing so rapidly that each year our migration takes longer.
It seems more reasonable to me that standard variations in weather patterns cause the consistent south winds that we face on some migrations, and that the fall of 2012 was more like a ‘normal’ year. At least normal as far as I can determine by researching weather history for the mid west.
Perhaps the cause of longer migrations is that we are becoming more selective about the conditions in which we will fly. Maybe, with age, we are limiting our fly days to those that are ‘perfect’ and passing up opportunities when the conditions are less than ideal.
If you read Field Journal entries from the early years there are plenty of stories of days when the winds picked up after we took off. Each one ends with a harrowing account of a wild landing or of birds scattered over the countryside.
Those situations can still arise, and the day number 10-12 broke her leg is a good example. So I don’t think we are practicing more risk aversion as we get older. With ages comes wisdom however, so even if we are becoming more selective, the advantage of shaving a few days off the migration is not worth risk to the pilots or to the birds.
Certainly better training is a factor. There is no doubt that this year the birds were more attentive than the class of 2011. That was evident in the number of false starts we had last year. Many times we would launch with the birds only to have them turn back. An aerial rodeo would ensue that sometimes lasted an hour before the birds would finally decide to follow us, or we would give up and wait for another day.
The only time that happened this year was on the first day of the migration and that early on it is an expected behavior. Even then it was only one bird, and Brooke was able to persuade it to follow after twenty minutes of encouragement.
In normal years only about 25 percent of the birds complete the entire migration under their own steam. The rest drop out one or more times and must be collected and crated to the next stop. In 2012 that only happened once when #6 landed in a corn field and John Cooper and I had to retrieve her. Four out of the five birds flew the entire distance.
Conditioning birds to follow our aircraft is not a precise science. We are never sure of the lessons we are conveying, or more accurately, what the birds perceive. It is much like teaching a foreign language when you only know a few words yourself. Obviously it is easier with only six birds, but in 2009 when we led 20 birds to Florida they were very attentive and on most occasions they all followed one aircraft.
Part of the speedy migration this year was because we took all the birds to St Marks and didn’t have to split the cohort to lead the remainder the extra 184 miles to Chassahowitzka. However, the weather has always been kinder to us in Florida, and leading the birds the extra miles only adds an average of 8 days.
So why are some migrations shorter than others? Why has it taken from as few as 48 days to as many as 97? On average it takes 23 fly days to reach Florida, but in some years it takes longer to get those 23 days of flyable weather. Maybe training has something to do with it, or the number of birds, or just plain luck.
Mark Twain once said that the harder he worked, the more luck he had. Maybe that’s true, but in this case, it’s not for lack of effort.