Where's My Mommy?
Imprinting in the Wild and in Operation Migration

Read-Aloud: Background Visualization

Crane egg photo by USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Imagine being a wild baby crane, wet and exhausted after finally breaking out of your egg. How strange the world seems! With your downy feathers still wet and plastered against your skin, every little breeze feels cold compared to the constant warmth inside the egg. The light dazzles your eyes, and there are so many bewildering sights! Everything sounds more intense now that your ears aren't stopped up with fluid. It could be very scary, but you know your parents are near.

But who, and where, are they? You've never seen anything in your life before this, and all of a sudden there are bewildering sights in every direction. You can see your nest, shrubs and trees, grasses and flowers, a puffy white cloud in the sky, a frog jumping right past your face, a brightly colored butterfly. A duck waddles close, and suddenly two long, black legs attached to a big white, feathery body with a long neck and startling face chases it away in a flurry of quacks and feathers. Every sight is strange, but your eyes are drawn to the gold eyes, long black beaks, and especially the bare red skin on the face attached to that big, white, feathered body.

Its big beak draws close and tenderly takes away some jagged pieces of eggshell, and something clicks. This is Mommy! For the next 10 or 11 months, this bird and one who looks just like her will be the most important things in your life. You will feel anxious anytime you can't see or hear them. If one of them takes a step with those long legs, you will take a dozen baby steps to keep up. And when one of them flies and calls to you, you will beat your little wings and run to try to keep up. One day in about two months, your growing wings will beat so hard that they'll pull you off the ground a bit, and by the time you're three months old or so, you'll be flying strong—just to keep up with your parents.

Imprinting Explained

photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

baby cranes learn what food to eat, how to fly, and where to migrate only because they can identify their parents and try so hard to stay with them and imitate them. The critical time for a baby crane to identify its parents happens within the first hours of hatching. We say it gets imprinted on its parents. And once imprinted, a crane will never accept anything else for a parent. In the wild, cranes nest in large territories, isolated from other cranes. Baby cranes are large and tasty. They would be in danger if they stayed on the nest too long. Imprinting is a quick way of learning who their parents are, so they can follow them within hours of hatching and won't get lost. Imprinting is also ultimately the way cranes identify their own species. Then, when they grow old enough to choose a mate, they will only consider birds that look like their parents. And they will raise their own babies in the same way their parents raised them.

Operation Migration: A Tricky Experiment

photo by USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

But what if you're a baby crane hatched to be part of Operation Migration and the reintroduction project? You don't see quite so many strange sights when you hatch: the bars and rubber floor of your incubator, light fixtures and lab equipment. The big white bodies you see don't have feathers. They don't have skinny crane legs, either, but you do see what you somehow know you're supposed to see--that bright red crane head. So you know you're safe, and you quickly imprint on them. But they aren't really cranes. They're humans dressed in billowy white costumes with a crane puppet on one hand.

Raising baby cranes in captivity to release them into the wild is a difficult and tricky task. It's important for any growing baby to feel safe and comfortable, but wild cranes are in terrible danger if they come too close to humans. Captive-bred baby cranes that will be released into the wild must never become tame with their handlers. They must never associate hands with food, or faces with love and kindness. The scientists at Operation Migration know that the safest way to raise their baby cranes is to keep the babies from ever seeing a human face or hands. They badly want these cranes to grow up as healthy wild cranes, and eventually to mate with other wild cranes and raise healthy wild babies. To give the chicks the best possible chance for this, the OM folks have developed a set of rules, or a protocol. Everyone who comes anywhere near these babies must follow that protocol. NO exceptions! Ever!


1. Print and read the Operation Migration's official protocol. The pilot-scientists at Operation Migration are pioneers in leading birds on migration with ultralight planes. Their experiences with geese and sandhill cranes have taught them many ways to use the techniques with whooping cranes. Their protocol is the result. As you read, think of possible reasons why each rule is important. Note reasons in your journal or on the chalkboard as you discuss them in class.

2. After your discussion, see what we think. Find our discussion here:

National Science Education Standards

  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal and external cues
  • The characteristics of an organism can be described in terms of a combination of traits. Some are inherited and others result from environmental interactions.