Sandhill Cranes Successfully Return North

Lishman and Ultralights Led Them South on Migration

 Migration is not an inherent trait for birds -- it must be taught. By getting these sandhill cranes to imprint on the trike, "disguised" as a big ugly crane (left) as their "mother," the birds are eventually taught to trust it and fly in formation with it, the prelude to teaching them the migration route. "With a 50-hp Rotax 2-cycle engine, the trike flies at 28 to 55 mph and has a range of 3 hours; cranes average about 32 mph," says Operation Migration.
Photos by Joseph Duff, courtesy of Operation Migration

After Bill "Father Goose" Lishman flew south in his trike, leading a flock of sandhill cranes (raised in captivity) on their first winter migration last fall, the big question remained: Would the big birds complete their migration by returning north on their own? The answer to that question would determine whether the same ultralight-led migration could be attempted again, this time with a flock of endangered whooping cranes (also raised in captivity), in an attempt to increase the whooping crane population in the wild. Whooping cranes are the most endangered crane on earth, having recovered from a low of only 21 birds in '41 to slightly more than 400 today.

The answer to the big question is now in, and it's Yes! The sandhill cranes did complete the round-trip on their own, migrating the 1,250 miles north to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

On April 27, signals from radio transmitters attached to the sandhill cranes (the most numerous of the crane family) were detected, indicating the cranes had arrived at their summer feeding grounds up north. The flock had left their winter refuge at the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve, owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in Citrus County in central Florida on February 25. Lishman's Operation Migration*ultralights had led the cranes there, completing the journey on November 11, 2000. Lishman's pioneering work raising and then flying with migratory birds in his ultralight was the basis for the Hollywood movie Fly Away Home**. Lishman and Operation Migration cofounder Joe Duff produced a video on the movie, released by In the Sky Productions***With the sandhill crane migration success, Lishman and Operation Migration are one step closer to the ultimate goal of reintroducing to the wild a flock of endangered whooping cranes, using the same ultralight-led migration techniques. If the Fish and Wildlife Service approves the proposal, WCEP will try to establish a migrating flock of whooping cranes in the eastern portion of the North American continent. (A single "western flock" of wild whooping cranes currently migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas). The total population of wild whooping cranes is a single flock "subject to hurricanes, contaminants and disease," says WCEP. "To help ensure the species' survival, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team (a WCEP member) decided a second wild flock of migrating whooping cranes should be established in the eastern United States." As this issue of Ultralight Flying! magazine went to press, the word was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval for Operation Migration to proceed (this time with whooping cranes) could possibly have come as early as June '01.

Stay tuned to Ultralight Flying! magazine for more on this continuing experiment utilizing ultralight aircraft, or check out Operation Migration's Website at: .

*For more on Bill Lishman and Operation Migration, see "Flightlines: Update -- 'Father Goose' Bill Lishman;" August '00 Ultralight Flying!UF! magazine
**See "Fly Away Home," November '96 UF! magazine
***See "Video Views: The Ultrageese -- The Inspirational Story Behind the Columbia Pictures Hit Film," November '98 UF! magazine magazine; and a related article, "Flightlines: Whooping Cranes Get Royal Attention," June '99