Discussion: Protocol for Operation Migration

We think these are the reasons for each protocol rule. Do you agree?

    Do you see the little chick?
    Photo USGS
    1. Cranes are intelligent birds. The puppet may be "mommy," but chicks can learn a lot by modeling other cranes, too. If a hawk flies over or raccoon is spotted, the adult cranes make alarm calls that will teach the chicks about dangers they will face when they're on their own. That's why those adults have to be put away when the ultralight is near. If they were alarmed by its presence, they might "teach" the baby cranes that ultralights are scary!

    2. These costumes don't show any of the most identifiable features of humans, and they sure aren't shaped like us! Cranes won't learn to associate hands or faces with food or safety.

    It's okay if once in a while the medical staff takes off their gloves; they're the ones who have to occasionally poke and prod and give the chicks a shot. That's a good reason to stay away from hands! Hoods are placed over the chicks' heads during exams so they don't see.

    3. The two most important senses for birds, as for us humans, are sight and hearing. Cranes remember both sights and sounds, so it's critical to prevent cranes from noticing humans with either sense.

    4. "Human avoidance conditioning" is training birds to actually be afraid of people. To do this, people have to do something that will give the cranes a big scare. In reacting to that fear, the crane might get injured. So human avoidance conditioning is only used as a last resort.

    5. When the cranes are truly on their own, they will have to get 100% of the food they eat. So as quickly as possible they need to learn how to feed themselves.

    6. If young cranes get used to the sights and sounds of people, they may well become too tame to release successfully. Clean cages are very important, but not worth risking the whole program for.

    7. The best habitat for cranes is far from houses, highways, and other human-made structures. If the cranes become familiar with buildings when they are young, they may feel comfortable landing near them while migrating, when they are over unfamiliar territory. So OM protocol tries to keep cranes away from these structures to start with.

    8. Crane chicks in nature only have two parents, and they seem to recognize which is which. Dealing with too many handlers will confuse them. It also increases the chances that they will start to recognize humans.

    9. When these cranes become wild, it will be important for them to identify suitable ares for nesting and also for resting during migration. They probably use a lot of hearing and sight clues to tell them what places are good. Learning how a quality environment sounds when they are little will help cranes identify safe places when they are older.

    10. Running and walking and having as much space as possible are essential for growing cranes. Exercise and use make their bones and muscles get bigger and stronger.

    Photo USGS

    Learning to adapt to changing weather is important, too. But sometimes in nature a baby crane can snuggle against a parent. This is impossible for Operation Migration chicks, so heat lamps and shelter are provided in case they get chilled.

    11. The only way this project can be successful is if these cranes eventually learn to breed on their own in the wild. To successfully establish a population, there must be a lot of genetic variation; cranes must have mate choices besides their own brother or sister! But it would be impossible for OM people to lead each crane individually, the way natural crane parents do in the wild. So to maximize the number of cranes released in the project, the cranes are taught to accept other baby cranes into their flock. They aren't really brothers and sisters. They ARE the same age and at the same stage in their socialization and migrating skills, so they are called a cohort.

    12. Some crane colts are faster and stronger as they first learn to fly. By carefully studying how each bird is progressing, no crane will be forced to try too hard for its capabilities or get too frustrated. There will be a smaller chance that any will get hurt in an accident.

    Watch a Whooping Crane chick follow its handler and learn how to follow the ultralight!
    Film clip courtesy Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

    13. The crane colts learned from the time they were little to follow a handler with the crane puppet. But they have to be able to focus entirely on the ultralight when they are migrating, so when it's time to start following the ultralight, it's important to ease away from following a handler who isn't in the ultralight.

    14. The ultralights that have been proven to work leading geese and cranes happen to be these large ones, which provide a good slipstream to help the cranes conserve energy on their flight. They must be piloted, even on the ground when their wings are off, by experienced pilots who know the instrument panel and how to handle the plane extremely well. It would be horrible to get into an accident with one of these cranes!

    15. Brood/contact calls are important for keeping baby cranes feeling safe in many situations. By the time they are getting ready to fly, it's important that they really start focusing on that plane as a kind of parent. One of the ways they are trained to focus on it is by hearing crane calls, thanks to Dr. Wessling's digital crane call vocalizers. Since it allows quick and easy reproduction of six different crane vocalizations, it's also possible to get the colts familiar with the meanings, or contexts, of several calls so they can communicate properly with wild cranes later.

    16. By teaching the cranes to respond to human imitations of the brood calls, the cranes will instinctively come to the handlers in an emergency, of if the digital crane call vocalizer isn't available or gets broken. It's a long way from Wisconsin to Florida, and anything can happen. The scientists want to be prepared!