While most of the team is away for Christmas volunteer crane handlers, Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, have been helping me with the day-to-day care of the Class of 2011. As a result, what I had only suspected before is now clear to me; the dynamics and behavior of the cranes in our cohort changes based on who is in the pen. It appears the birds can somehow distinguish one costume from another.

My first introduction to changing group dynamics occurred in La Salle County, Illinois when discussing our dominant birds with Brooke. Brooke was adamant about 10-11 being a tough, dominant bird as he had observed that crane pecking and bullying other birds. I staunchly took the opposite view. The 10-11 that I knew was quite a shy bird who was badgered and beat by #5 and #7. We never came to an agreement.

“Do the birds act differently when different costumes are in the pen?” I later asked Richard. “Yeah,” was all he responded.

Back in Livingston County, Illinois I really picked up on behavior change when Walter Sturgeon entered the pen with a clean costume and a freshly refurbished puppet. The birds, particularly #1, went nuts. #1 was frantically trying to establish dominance over this new puppet head. He flapped, rasped, and pecked relentlessly at the ‘new bird’, and by the time Walter and I were leaving the pen, #1 had aged his new puppet significantly.

It was strange to me, because although #1 was certainly a dominant bird, I had never experienced him trying to pull rank on me. Sure, I had been on the receiving end of a few crown displays, but other than that, nothing more forceful than some strong pecks at my puppet’s beak. This is when it became clear to me that when I’m in the pen, I become the dominant one.

Throughout the past week I have seen Gordon and Christine deal with several dominance interactions and it seems Christine receives the worst of it. Numbers 1, 6, and 10 have been the leaders of the offensives on the new costumes. The first few times the ‘new costumes’ entered the pen, those three birds were determined to establish their sovereignty and the three cranes tried desperately to beat the unfamiliar puppet heads into submission.

They have since calmed down and become accustomed to their interim surrogate parents. I expected the aggression from numbers 1 and 7, but never thought # 6 and #10 would react so strongly. 10-11 even jump-raked the newcomers, something I had never seen a colt do to a costume. The cohort constantly surprises me, and I never quite know what to expect next.

Some of our regular readers might be a little perplexed about my assumption of #7 being an aggressor. While at White River Marsh I never commented or observed a strong personality from this bird. Geoff though, was observant enough to catch her youthful dominance. He noted early on that she wasn’t afraid of going after #1 if he bothered her too much. It wasn’t until we were on migration however, that I first observed her start to take a leading role in the cohort.

At the start of migration when I thought of dominant birds, it was #1 and #5 that came to mind. While #1 has retained his top of the heap position, it seems #5 has dropped down in the pecking order, or at least has backed off. He no longer rushes us when we enter the pen, and seems to not fight for grapes with the same vigor he used to. Numbers 6 and 7 have either filled that void, or pushed him aside as they now seem to have taken on dominant roles within the cohort. I would even go so far as to say #7 is the most aggressive bird. She certainly isn’t afraid of any other bird in the pen and seems to regularly chase other birds around and jump-rake at them.

This leads to another reflection. The birds obviously react differently to different costumes, and seemingly must be able to differentiate between them. It also is plain that the dynamics of the group from within changes as time passes. Much like in high school when popularity rises and falls, the cranes’ pecking order shuffles and re-aligns from time to time.

Once upon a time at Patuxent, 12-11 was a tough little girl. 1-11 was top dog, and 9-11 liked the costumes. As time progressed at White River Marsh #1 retained his chief position, #12 became one of our shyest birds, and #9 developed an attitude of indifference and disregard for the costumes. During the summer #5 surged to the top of the cohort and was lost in a grape-desiring frenzy for a few months.

As time has gone on, #5 has calmed down, fading somewhat into the background. Numbers 6 and 7 have taken a liking to their newfound tough-guy roles. #9 has began to warm up to the costumes as she will follow me around the pen sometimes, and come up to peck gently if I crouch down.

There is no doubt in my mind the group dynamics change over time. I am grateful and count myself extremely lucky to have the opportunity to observe such intriguing interactions between these fascinating creatures.


Bill Lishman became the first human to fly in formation with a flock of birds in 1988. By 1993 he wanted to attempt the first human-led migration. At that time I was a disenchanted photographer having spent too many years at one thing. His invitation to see if we could actually lead a migration, sounded like a great summer time adventure. Little did I know it would be a life changing experience.

Since that time we have flown with geese, swans, Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes. I have led birds south nineteen times and covered over 18,000 miles but it has come at a cost. My daughter was born in 1999 and I had to rush home from a meeting in Wisconsin to be there at the birth. Every year we are away from September to whenever the migration is complete. Every fall I miss my wife’s birthday, Halloween, and my daughters Christmas recital.

I am not sure why I am compiling this brief history. Maybe it’s an excuse, or to somehow appease my own guilt for not being with the team now. Whooping cranes are demanding, not only of the people who lead the migration, but of their families. Each of us on the team must balance one against the other and find the limits of what they are prepared to sacrifice. I reached mine when I headed home to join my family a few days before Christmas.

For several months we have been planning a trip to Costa Rica. The rest of the team was prepared to carry on without me so I felt confident my absence would not slow things down. Another week of bad weather ended those plans to carry on so a skeleton crew was left with the birds and the rest of the team headed home too.

The idea was to reconvene shortly after Christmas when the weather improved and I would join them after New Years. But plans are nothing more than ideas and reality hits hard. Over his break Brooke injured his back and should not be flying an aircraft as physically demanding as a trike. With me a few thousand miles away and Brooke temporarily out of commission, we are down to only one pilot. That means the migration is stalled until early in the New Year when Richard and I will carry on.

It is a unplanned for delay and one we would have preferred to avoid, but it is not unprecedented. Twice before we have held birds at this stopover while the team went home for Christmas. This is a longer stay than most, but it compares to previous years when we had to leave the birds penned in Florida while we waited for the older generation to stop in a Chassahowitzka NWR and then move on to their preferred wintering grounds.

It is not ideal, but there is no real down side. Migrations have taken longer with no adverse effect, and the birds are in a secure place in the hands of good people. The only negative is the migration will be prolonged, and of course Brooke has some recovering to do.


Here are the answers to yesterday’s True or False quiz.

1. Puffins are poor flyers. TRUE
They flap their wings 300-400 times per minute. (The hummingbird, in normal flight, flaps 80 times per second!). However, the Puffin can hold its breath for up to a minute underwater. They can catch an average of ten fish in one dive.

2. Every month Americans throw out enough glass bottles and jars to fill a giant skyscraper. TRUE
It is all 100% recyclable. A glass container can travel from the recycling bin back to a store shelf in as little as 30 days. Manufacturers of glass containers have set a goal to have 50% recycled content by 2013 when making new bottles.

3. Monarch butterflies hatched in the early summer migrate in the fall. FALSE
Only Monarchs born in the late summer or early fall with make the round-trip journey. They are the only butterflies to make the massive trip, which is up to 3,000 miles. By the time next year’s migration begins, several summer generations will have lived and died and it will be last year’s migrators’ great grandchildren that take flight. Somehow these new generations know the way, and follow the same routes their ancestors took—sometimes even returning to the same tree.

4. There are nearly 100 species of freshwater mussels in the United States. FALSE
There are nearly 300 species and they are in peril. Habitat destruction and water pollution are their biggest threats. Ohio State University and the Columbus Zoo are working together on a study looking into the Northern Riffleshell species. They were abundant at one time in the upper Ohio River system but now only a few reproducing populations remain.

5. Approximately 5% of the water on Earth is accessible and fit for human use. FALSE
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is only about 1%. Conserving water at home helps protect the water sources available. Collect rainwater at home by using a rain barrel. It’s ideal for your garden or lawn. You’ll avoid using the water from the tap or an outdoor faucet. This reduces your overall water consumption and reduces the amount of energy needed to treat water at a water treatment facility.

6. The North American Wood stork is endangered. TRUE
They typically live in the wild for 11-18 years. The Wood stork uses an unusual yet effective fishing technique. It opens its bill, sticks it into the water and waits for an unfortunate fish that wanders too close. It then snaps its bill shut in as little as 25 milliseconds—an incredibly quick reaction time matched by few other vertebrates.


Here is a second set of wildlife and environmental questions to test your knowledge. Try this True or False quiz and see how you do. For the answers check tomorrow’s Field Journal.

1. Puffins are poor flyers.

2. Every month Americans throw out enough glass bottles and jars to fill a giant skyscraper.

3. Monarch butterflies hatched in early summer migrate in the fall.

4. There are nearly 100 species of freshwater mussels in the United States.

5. Approximately 5% of the water on Earth is accessible and fit for human use.

6. The North American Wood stork is endangered.


1. Flamingos are pink at birth. FALSE
They are born white and acquire their pink hue from eating brine shrimp among other things. They are considered a wading bird and, like the Whooping crane, have black feathers in each wing. The Flamingo Andino is the most threatened of six species. It nests along the shores of salt lakes in the deserts of northern Chile.

2. The female blue crab mates three times in her lifetime. FALSE
Females mate only once. Mature females have red highlights on top of their pincers. Blue crabs are extremely sensitive to environmental and habitat changes. Many populations, especially in the eastern United States, have experienced severe declines. The constant overharvesting of their ecosystems has had a negative effect. Comprehensive management schemes are currently in place to improve the situation.

3. The use of the Green roof is on the increase. TRUE
A green roof reduces energy use by absorbing heat and acting as an insulator. This, in turn, reduces the demand for air conditioning. Associated pollution and greenhouses gases therefore decline.

4. Recycling one glass bottle saves the energy needed to light a 100-watt light bulb for 4 hours or a compact fluorescent bulb for 20 hours. TRUE
It also saves enough energy to run a television for 20 minutes or a computer for 30 minutes. Plus, there is 20% less air pollution and 50% less water pollution than making a bottle from raw materials. Recycled glass is used to make countertops, flooring and tiles.

5. The common Marmoset is the only animal, other than a human, to show ‘unsolicited pro-sociality’. TRUE
Researchers in Zurich found a Marmoset offered food to a nearby Marmoset in a cage. There was nothing expected in return and the Marmoset was no relation. They share their altruistic tendencies with the human race.

6. One of the Manatee’s closest relatives is the elephant. TRUE
Manatees have no natural enemies and it is believed they can live 60 years or more. The loss of their habitat is the most serious threat facing the approximately 3,800 manatees in the United States. They are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Threats to habitat include development and pollution of seagrass beds by red tide as well as surface water runoff from construction sites and farms.


Want to see how informed you are about wildlife and the environment? Give the True or False quiz below a try and see how you score. Check tomorrow’s Field Journal for the answers.

1. Flamingos are pink at birth.

2. A female blue crab mates three times in her lifetime.

3. The use of a Green roof is on the increase.

4. Recycling one glass bottle saves the energy needed to light a 100-watt light bulb for 4 hours or a compact fluorescent bulb for 20 hours.

5. The common Marmoset is the only animal, other than a human, to show ‘unsolicited pro-sociality’.

6. One of the Manatee’s closest relative is the elephant.


This is the fourth time we have flown the more westerly migration route. The first was in 2008. That year we arrived in Russellville, Alabama on December 12th and the weather held the cranes and planes in place for five days with no let up in sight before we conceded. On December 18th we broke the migration to allow the majority of the team to go home for the holidays.

The second year on this route was a repeat. We arrived on December 17th and held on hoping for flyable weather until the 21st before releasing the crew to allow them time to get home for Christmas with family. In 2010 we had great weather when we departed Hardin County, Tennessee, and as a result we were able to overfly our Franklin County stop.

Now, as I spend my third Christmas here, I can’t help but flashback to something than happened in 2009. At the conclusion of that year’s migration each member of the team was asked to write a piece describing what was for them, the journey’s most ‘memorable moment’. Last night, as I lay in bed listening to a chorus of spine-tingling coyote howls, my mind replayed my most memorable moment of the 2009 migration. Below is what I wrote back then…

2009 Most Memorable Moment
On a migration of 89 days of which just 25 were ‘fly days’, one might rightly reason there were days and more days that – shall we say – were less than exciting. While because of their inevitability, ‘down days’ are borne with some measure of equanimity, when the weather hits us with a lengthy stretch of going-nowhere-days, anxiety and frustration mount.

Such was the case when for the third consecutive year we faced the reality of the migration running over into the New Year. Although once or twice in the past, finishing in time to get home in time for Christmas was a bit of a squeaker, that timing was the rule until the Marathon Migration of 2007.

On December 20th this past year, as we contemplated a forecast of at least a week of unfavourable flying weather, we knew a return to pre-Christmas finishes was not in the cards. So it was that the next day the crew began departing for their respective homes for the holidays with their families, with three of us (Robert Doyle, Geoff Tarbox and I) staying behind to hold down the fort.

What I didn’t know at the time was that staying behind to keep the CraneCam operational would put me in line for a most unexpected experience – and memorable moment.

The weatherman produced day after day of cold, wet, windy, mind-numbing, misery-inducing weather. It wasn’t too many days before I would groan at the mere thought of the four times a day ritual of layering up, sticking my feet in icy, rubber boots, and, laptop in tow, trudging through the mud down to the camera trailer where I’d sit, nose dripping, toes freezing, my mouse manipulating fingers gradually stiffening from the cold, and question my sanity at having volunteered. Until… trip to the CraneCam changed it all.

That morning when tucking the truck out of view behind a forested hill, my peripheral vision caught a blur of movement. As started my trek down the hill to the camera, I peered through the early morning half light to see what it was that had caught my eye. Holeee! Coyotes! Headed toward the pen!

They had seen me too, and for long moments, heads lowered and ears perked, they stood stock-still staring me down. Frozen in place I gaped open-mouthed while my brain raced. “Oh my gawd! Oh my gawd! What do I do? What do I do?” Then my brain said, “Go get back in the truck, stupid.” Never knew my short, fat legs could move so fast.

Secure in the cab, with one eye I watched the coyotes circle and sniff the air, while with the other I cast about for potential weaponry should they look like they were intent on having a Whooper breakfast. It was quickly apparent however, that short of running over and beaning them with my laptop, the truck itself was my only weapon – and exposing the birds to it was a no-no. “Okay,” I thought, “So now what?”

Long before I figured it out the coyotes trotted off in the other direction, casting what I thought was looks of disdain over their shoulders. In the aftermath of the heart palpitating encounter, I of course remembered the hot wires around the pen, and half marveled, half chuckled at the protective ‘mother instinct’ the threat to the chicks had aroused.

While day in and day out I treasured and had toiled for those chicks, they had become, if only for a few minutes, as much mine to personally protect as they ever would. That feeling of possessiveness went beyond the norm. They weren’t WCEP’s chicks. They weren’t even ours, as in OM’s chicks. They were MY chicks. Scant seconds later I rightly returned their ownership to all the world, but not before I indulged myself fully in that emotional, adrenaline pumping memorable moment.

Indeed, those gorgeous youngsters not only belong to the world, but by the time you are reading this they will be out on their own in it. And the world better be careful – – woe betide the human that messes with my,, our cranes. I think I could be the mother from hell.


Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary defines Animal Welfare as, “the avoidance of abuse and exploitation of animals by humans by maintaining appropriate standards of accommodation, feeding and general care, the prevention and treatment of disease, and the assurance of freedom from harassment, and unnecessary discomfort and pain.”

Anytime we have or bring animals into captivity, whether we through birth/hatch or capture, we are obligated to protect those animals’ welfare. I believe there are no two ways about it. By controlling the its actions and choices, we must assume full responsibility for that animal.

In the case of the Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population, WCEP and its partners assume full responsibility for their well being the minute we are in possession of a fertile egg. From a welfare standpoint, there are pages upon pages of protocols for everything involved in raising these birds.

Every step of the way attention is given to the most minute detail. These include everything from weight management to regular exercise sessions, both swimming and walking to ensure proper development. The U.S.G.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland is well known for success at producing healthy Whooping crane chicks.

But the attention to the young cranes’ welfare doesn’t end there. We continue to safeguard them throughout the entire time they are in our care. They are given de-worming medications according to a schedule provided by International Crane Foundation veterinarians. They have constant access to clean drinking water, are provided with a specially formulated diet, and follow a specific exercise schedule.

Sometimes weather will prevent training with the ultralights for several days in a row. When this happens, and assuming appropriate conditions, on the third day of no activity we let the cranes out of the pen to give them time to run around, stretch their wings, and forage. Additionally, we provide enrichment toys (pumpkins and corn) to keep the cohort entertained and curious. While we are responsible for them, the ultimate goal is to ensure they live a healthy, stress-free, disease-free, and harassment-free life.

Based on Saunders’ definition I believe we do everything we possibly can to ensure the cohorts’ welfare. Determining exactly what is appropriate for an animal’s welfare can be a difficult assignment, and yes, we do manipulate the young birds, but it is in order to achieve a broader goal.

We are in control of directing and caring for the cranes until they have reached a point they can be released into the wild. The very fact that so many young cranes have been successfully released into the wild for so many years with so few incidents, lends credence to the efficacy of the entire process.


The rain that was expected to begin falling overnight held off until shortly after 6:00 this morning. It quickly made up for the delayed start however, with giant, pelting raindrops and flashes of lightning. It wasn’t long before every depression was filled to overflowing.

The Class of 2011 received their preventative meds yesterday, delivered via grape treats. On his return from this morning’s pen check, boots squelching and soaked through – Caleb flashed a smile and gave a thumbs up. He said all the cranes were doing just fine despite the heavy downpour.


The already strong south winds worked up a head of steam last evening and the motion of our motorhomes went from rock ‘n roll to pitch and heave. Then, the sky opened up. Like a little drummer boy on a sugar overload, the rain played a resounding rat-a-tat-tat on the roof of our ‘tin cans’ all night long. As a result, this morning there’s a little stream flowing between us and the access to the ‘facilities’.

With what we’ve been presented with this morning, and what appears to be ahead of us, at least in the foreseeable future, we have decided that effective today we will take a Holiday Hiatus to allow the majority of the team an opportunity to get home in time to spend Christmas with their family and friends.

Four team members will remain behind to look after the Class of 2011 and keep the ‘campfires’ burning.


We have a stiff breeze out of the south giving us a balmy temperature in the 50’s today. At altitude the wind is from the same direction and considerably stronger. The crew is fast running through all the little jobs, fixes, and miscellaneous tasks that are always cropping up and wanting some attention.

We’ve taken full advantage of the down days – taking on fresh water, dumping grey and black water tanks, re-filling onboard propane and propane tanks, catching up on ‘housekeeping’, laundry, correspondence, etc, etc.


If you’ve been watching the national weather, you will have seen the giant system we are under. It’s big, and it’s not pretty, delivering windy conditions and very soon if it lives up to what the weatherman is promising, also lots and lots of rain.

In a message posted to our GuestBook today, Susan Van Den Bosch from Twin Lakes, WI expressed her appreciation to our migration property owners and stopover hosts. We have often said, but cannot say it often enough, without the kindness and generosity of these wonderful people there could be no ultralight-led migration as we know it. It is great that Susan and so many others are as grateful for and as understanding of the magnitude of these folks’ contributions as we are. Reproduced below is Susan’s GuestBook entry….

“Every year I am amazed by the families and communities along the migration route. At a particularly busy time of year they open their homes and families up to the OM team and birds for an unknown period of time on sometimes very short notice. While the families remain anonymous to those of us following on the net, I would like to say thanks and God Bless our migration hosts/communities for their support and dedication to the OM team and our precious chicks.

I have witnessed migration flyovers twice in recent years and have been welcomed into the communities near the flyover. The OM team makes an impression wherever they go and leave a lasting memory for all.”


We have strong winds aloft this morning. Indicative of their direction is the rising temperature. In contrast to the previous overnight temperature in the mid-twenties, last evening it was in the 40’s and forecast to rise to a high of near 60 degrees before the day is out.

During this and previous stops here in Russellville we’ve made some great friends. Among those are Harry and Belle, Dick and Joanna, Johnny and Brenda, Hudean and Janice, and Janet and Coy. This shout out is in tribute to the ladies mentioned here. They have been treating us to wonderful, homemade fare every day since we arrived, and we can all attest to their fine cooking and baking skills. What a warm, generous, and thoughtful group of people! We know how fortunate we are, and we are honored to have their friendship and grateful for their support.


The good news is our equipment issue has been resolved. The bad news is the weather tomorrow will certainly keep us on the ground. The prediction is for SSE surface winds and 20-30mph SSW winds aloft.

We will be watching the forecasts – both short and long range even closer than usual. If it appears we will not have a reasonable opportunity to fly in the next day or so, rather than pressing on, we will consider breaking to allow the crew to go home and to spend the holidays with their family and friends.