“...the wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the moon.”   

This quote from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s John Christian sums up the work of Operation Migration. 

Canadians Bill Lishman and Joe Duff founded Operation Migration in 1994 to teach captive-reared birds to migrate by following the Cosmos Phase II ultralight aircraft. Starting in 1995, Joe Duff and other Operation Migration pilots led Canada geese to South Carolina, trumpeter swans to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida in the Cosmos Phase II ultralight.

One of the Cosmos Phase II ultralights used for Operation Migration. The aircraft pictured here and on display in the We All Fly gallery had its Hollywood debut in Columbia Pictures’ Fly Away Home. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Ultralights are ideal for training endangered, captive-bred birds to migrate. The ‘trike’ pilot sits on a three-wheeled airframe that supports the Rogallo wing. Birds follow the ultralight thinking it is “mother.” The pilot safely matches the birds’ cruising speed, depending on the bird. The whooping crane, for example, cruises at 38 mph (24 km/h). Hazards in the air and on the ground complicate this work. Then there’s getting those whooping cranes across the Appalachian Mountains. 

Ultralights are slow, fairly quiet, and not difficult to control. The pilot can cruise along with the birds without causing them harm or stress. These qualities make them useful to lead birds. Image courtesy of Operation Migration.

Whooping cranes once numbered in the thousands. By 1941, only 21 remained. The species was headed for extinction due to human interference. It would take captive breeding, an ultralight, and reintroduction to bring these birds back from the brink. 

In nature, whooping cranes breed in the north during the summer, and migrate south in the fall. Young cranes learn the migration route by following the adults. For captive-bred birds, people would need to train them to migrate to survive on their own in the wild. 

The migratory path of the whooping cranes lead by the Operation Migration ultralights. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Whooping crane reintroduction was not simply about “letting them go” to fly home. It took imagination plus painstaking work, starting with eggs, to teach hand-raised cranes—who have no migration knowledge—how to find their way along a 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) route.

Crane chicks identify with whoever raises them. So aviculturists dressed in costumes, and used hand puppets that looked like adult cranes. That way, when released to nature, the young birds would recognize other cranes—rather than people—as their own kind. Image courtesy of Operation Migration. 

These captive-raised cranes needed to rely on the ultralight to guide them along their migration route. Even as eggs they “heard” recorded sounds of an ultralight engine, so that when they were born, they were already familiar with the sound. Eight weeks after hatching, the birds were following the ultralight as it taxied, and flying with the aircraft at 80 to 90 days old. 

After taking off, the whooping cranes jockeyed for a position to “surf” the strong wing tip vortex generated by the ultralight. A bird can fly with less effort from this coveted position. Image courtesy of Operation Migration. 

In 2005, the migration required a dozen people. Two flew Cessnas, providing “top cover” by communicating with Air Traffic Control and coordinating the migration with the ground staff. In 2006, the first migratory whooping crane in over 100 years hatched in the United States. But the aircraft-guided reintroduction method was deemed too “artificial” to be sustainable and ended in 2016. Today, the Cosmos Phase II, the whooping crane costume, and other related items are a part of the Museum’s collection as an example of the usefulness of aviation in wildlife conservation.    

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Operation Migration staff wore this hood and googles, along with a white smock, as a disguise so that the birds wouldn’t imprint on humans. Staff forbade talking near the cranes for the same reason. Biologists gave numbers—but not names—to each new hatchling to remind people that the birds were not pets. Staff also wore hand puppets to keep crane chicks from imprinting on humans. This made it easier for the birds to bond with, and follow, the ultralight. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

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A whooping crane brood call played through the loudspeaker attached to the ultralight’s left landing gear strut. The recording encouraged the birds to stay in formation with the ultralight. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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The whooping cranes’ migration route stretches from Wisconsin to Florida. Depending on weather—and the cranes—a flight leg can cover as much as 200 miles (322 kilometers) or as little as 23 miles (37 kilometers). This GPS unit allowed precise navigation. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

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The pilot used this headset to communicate with the chase aircraft and ground crew. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Related Topics Aviation Ultralights General aviation
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