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FAA Rules May Interrupt Endangered Crane Migration


Endangered whooping cranes relied on human assistance to find their way from summer nests to their winter homes. There weren't older birds that knew the way, so scientists taught birds to follow an ultralight aircraft. You might remember how that procedure worked with geese in the movie "Fly Away Home." Now Operation Migration hopes to expand operations to re-open an Eastern flyway where whooping cranes disappeared in the 1800s. But this time, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the plane and thus the birds along the way in Alabama. More on that in a moment.

If you have questions about humans and the migration of whooping cranes, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joe Duff is co-founder and CEO of Operation Migration and lead pilot. He joins us from Fort Perry, Ontario, and nice to have you on the program today.

JOE DUFF: Thank you very much. I appreciate being on it.

CONAN: So how come the flock is on the ground?

DUFF: Well, back in 2008, the FAA instituted a new set of regulations for a new category of aircraft. They used to be registered as ultralights, and now they are registered as sports light aircraft. And there are a bunch of rules with them, and one of the regulations is that you cannot fly a sports light aircraft for hire. And, of course, we have three pilots that do this. We have maintained that our pilots are paid for a long list of activities and volunteer their time for flying, but...

CONAN: This is open to debate.

DUFF: It's open debate. All regulations are open to interpretation, and so that's where we are. FAA has not grounded us, though. We felt that we were in compliance with the regulations. And once they questioned us, then we voluntarily decided not to fly anymore so that we're not in violation of the rules.

We don't want to fly in violation of the rules. We want to be good citizens if we can, but we're working now with the FAA to hopefully get a waiver for this regulation. Of course it wasn't written to curtail wildlife re-introduction. It was written for other purposes, but the rule stands, and, in fact, that's probably why the waiver option is available.

CONAN: So we shouldn't cast the FAA as the Grinch here.

DUFF: No, I don't think so. I think, you know, we're getting good cooperation and a lot of support. They're trying to figure out a way around this for us, and - but we still have rules to abide by, so...

CONAN: Let us get back, though, to the larger issue of this migration route and the, well, just remarkable process that you folks use to imprint the birds with the idea that they should follow an ultralight aircraft.

DUFF: Yeah. It's a convoluted project. It started way back in 1988 when Bill Lishman was the first person to ever fly with birds, and then I joined him in 1993 when we came back with the first migration of Canada geese to see if it was possible, and it's evolved now to help re-introduce an endangered species.

The problem, of course, is that, back in the 1940s, there were only 15 whooping cranes. That's all that existed in the world. They migrated from Northern Canada all the way down to Texas. And, of course, in Texas there's continued development pressure, and the spill that happened in the Gulf could threaten their habitat.

So that's a very precarious situation even though the flock now has grown to - I think the last count was 278 birds. So we're trying to establish a separate flock that's not subject to the same threats, independent one migrating from Wisconsin to Florida.

But the problem is whooping cranes learn a migration route by following their parents. It's passed from one generation to the next, and the last birds in the Eastern flyway were wiped out in the 1800s. So that migration route is also lost. It was lost until we discovered this method of actually using ultralight aircraft to teach them.

CONAN: And the method depends on the bird's instinct to imprint on the first creature it sees when it's born.

DUFF: Basically, yeah. Whooping cranes are hatched in the nest, in a marsh on the ground, basically, and they leave the nest almost immediately and follow their parents out to forage for food. And if they don't follow their parents, they're lost. So that natural instinct to imprint is there, and we just substitute parent for pilot and make sure they imprint on us.

CONAN: And the pilot, in this case, wears what I've heard described as a baggy bird suit.

DUFF: Yeah. Basically, we're trying to make sure these birds aren't familiar with humans. You know, a whooping crane is 5 feet tall and has a sharp beak and will defend itself if it feels threatened. So if you were to raise the birds just in normally dressed humans, talking in front of them, they would - when they're released into the wild, they would think humans is where the food comes from, so they would land next to them. So we isolate them. They don't - they - by the time our birds arrive in Florida, they will never - have never seen a normally dressed person.

They would have never been close to a car or tractor, or they will - never heard a human voice. So once they're released, those things are unfamiliar with them and they are afraid of them, and they are actually wild birds.

CONAN: So how do you - and you have been in that bird suit - how do you act around the birds?

DUFF: Well, basically, you - the bag - the big baggy costume covers us head to toe. We look to through a Mylar visor, so they can's see our face. We don't talk anywhere near the birds. We carry an MP3 player and a little speaker that produces a vocalization. It's basically a bird call, a whooping crane call. And we carry a puppet that looks like an adult bird. We can feed them with the puppet. We communicate just as if we were birds. So it's a fascinating thing to do. If you would just stop talking and listen for a while, you are allowed into their social structure, and we're just part of that structure.

CONAN: And I'm told that indeed that player, the MP3 player, yes, it's got whooping crane calls on it so they learn to hear those, but it's also mixed in there is the sound of the engine so they'd learn to like that too.

DUFF: Yeah, exactly. When the chick first starts to hatch, when they punch a whole in the egg, it's called pipping, and it can take a number of hours, thereafter, to finally hatch. And that's when the parents starts communicating with the chicks. So we play a recording of an adult bird call, and that's what called a brood call. And, basically, it means, you know, I'm OK. Everything is all right. We're here. And it's calming for the bird. And we also play a recording of the aircraft engine to get them used to it, so that they're familiar with that sound. It's not something that frightens them.

When they're about, maybe, a week or so old, we actually introduce the real aircraft and they get familiar with the shape and the sight and the sound of that. And then a little later on, we use what's called a circle pen. We have a pen that's about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet high. We put the chick on the inside, the aircraft on the outside. Then we taxi around the perimeter. And we use a puppet that looks like an adult, and we can pull a trigger in that puppet and it will dispense mealworms.

So we tap on the ground, the chick comes over to find the food. We move the aircraft ahead and the chick follows the puppet again, and eventually the chick will be following us. So it's a long, slow process. It takes a huge number of hours, seven days a week. But once the birds are - all this takes place at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where they have the largest captive flock of whooping cranes, and that's where the eggs are produced. When the birds are roughly 40 days of age or 50 days of age, we transport them in containers by private aircraft to Wisconsin.

We spend the entire summer working with them. That's where they learn to fly and get conditioned to follow our aircraft. And then in October we start the migration. It usually takes us about three months to get all the way down to Florida. We monitor the birds over the winter. And then in the spring, they make the return migration on their own. And from then on, they're wild birds. Each year, we add a new generation, hoping to build the flock up to the point where it'll be self-sustaining.

CONAN: And therefore, should something terrible happen to that flock in Texas, there will be a backup.

DUFF: Exactly. It won't be the end of whooping cranes.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Duff, co-founder and CEO of Operation Migration. If you got questions about the human assistance provided to whooping cranes, to learn their route on migration, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Zack. And Zack is on the line from Iowa City.

ZACK: Hello. I - this is super fascinating. I wanted to ask how you choose the route? And, you know, most migrating birds have to stop and rest, and I wonder how you manage that. Do you have to find an airstrip near a marsh or near someplace where they can rest? Or can you land on an airstrip and then somehow take the birds further away? I wanted to ask about the resting places, but also bring out the topic of the awesome and interesting efforts to save species that are on the brink of extinction. But to couple that list, habitat restoration because if you save the species but they don't have a place to live, it's kind of a lost cause. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on that too.

CONAN: All right. Zack, thanks very much.

DUFF: Well, the first question is the migration and how we choose it. Basically, we're using a historic whooping crane migration. We know not the exact route, but we know they were in all the states that we pass through. And the wild whooping cranes are soaring birds. They may take off in one of those days with lots of fluffy clouds and thermal. They fly like a hawk or an eagle. They'll climb up on a warm column of air without expending any energy. They glide to the next one, and they can cover two or 300 miles that way.

We don't have the capacity to fly that way. We don't have the fuel range. We don't have the ability to soar the way they do, so we fly in the very calm air of first thing in the morning. And as we plow through the air, our aircraft creates a wake in the air much the way a boat would and the birds learn to fly on that wake. So our lead bird maybe only inches from the wingtip, and they soar along getting a free ride that way. That can only happen when the air is calm.

As soon as, you know, the winds start to pick up midday, then the wing bounces around too much. The birds can't follow it. In order to follow us, they have to move away from the wing. That means they have to flap fly and they get tired. So we only get maybe an hour or two the first thing in the morning. And birds fly around 38 miles an hour, so we can get maybe 50 to 100 miles on a good day. And at each stopover site, we have most of them around private property. People know we're coming. They've opened their homes and their property to us.

We have an area that's isolated where we can put the pen, and we tend them for the rest of the day and then go the next the day if the weather allows. On average, to cover the 1,285 miles from Wisconsin to Florida, takes us about 25 flying days, but it may take us upwards of 100 days to get those 25 flying days. So that's the process. Now, in the way back, of course, they can make it in a much shorter time when they're flying their own, so...

CONAN: Because bad weather, you can't fly at all.

DUFF: Bad weather, we can't fly at all. In fact, this year, we've had some particularly bad weather. We were stuck in Illinois at a private landowner's home for 16 days in high winds. We got a one-day break. We traveled 67 miles, and we were stuck for another 10 days, so...

CONAN: All right. We're talking with Joe Duff of the Operation Migration. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Pat's on the line, Pat calling from Fleming Island in Florida.

PAT: Yes. I heard - I think I just read it recently that the FAA got involved and didn't like the idea of you guys flying for pay. Is there any truth to that?

CONAN: I think you tuned in late. We discussed this earlier, but, Joe Duff, he'd like to clarify.

DUFF: Yes, sir. The type of aircraft we fly used to be called ultralight aircraft. And there's a new regulation out, started in 2008 called the light-sport category. And that's the category our aircraft fit in, and the rules that go along with that category say that you cannot fly an aircraft like that for hire, and you cannot fly an aircraft like that for the furtherance of a business. And, of course, Operation Migration as a non-profit is a business. So as we said earlier, the rules are open to interpretation. We felt that we were compliant with the rules, but the FAA responded to a complaint and they have to investigate, and so they are doing that.

They are working closely with us, hopefully, to issue a waiver exempting us from those rules because of the benefit that it has to the American people. We're reintroducing an endangered species. We're promoting conservation of wetland habitat. We're promoting the conservation education. So, you know, through partner organization journeying north, we reached 1.6 million school-aged kids every year with lesson plans all based on this project. So it is - it has major benefits to the American people, so that's one of the criteria for an exemption.

CONAN: Let's go next to Leslie, Leslie with us from West Michigan.

LESLIE: West Bloomfield, Michigan.

CONAN: Oh, go ahead, please.

LESLIE: Anyways, I got a ton of questions. Number one, what does a whooping crane look like? Number two, what happened to the original flock in the 1800s? Where they killed off by humans, or did they die from disease? Number three...

CONAN: Why don't we pause there, Leslie, and let him get an answer to the first two.

DUFF: OK. Well, a whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. It's about 5 feet tall. It has a 7 foot wingspan. If you've seen sandhill cranes - there's two kinds of cranes in North America and we have - coincidentally the most plentiful, which is the sandhill crane and the most endangered, which is the whooping crane. The sandhill crane is kind of gray all over. Usually, a whooping crane is pure white. It has black primary feathers and a red patch on its forehead, so it's a very distinctive-looking bird and what we call the white ghost of the wetlands.

CONAN: And the - what happened to the original flock?

DUFF: Well, you know, back in the 1940s, a conservation isn't what it is now, you know? People didn't realize that, you know, our grandparents and our great grandparents thought that everything out there was theirs for the harvesting. And we now have a better understanding of conservation and natural resources. So, you know, back in the 1800s when they discovered that many birds were endangered, a lot of museums sent out trappers to get the last example so they'd have some.

So, it's just the whole concept that conservation has changed now and the, you know, the hunting regulations have come in. And, in fact, hunters are probably one of the biggest conservationists of all. The taxes they pay on hunting licenses and ammunition is what funds most of the conservation projects out there. So it's just a change of attitude, but basically, it was lost of habitat and overhunting before there were regulations, back when, you know, you needed to hunt for food.

CONAN: Leslie, you have time for one more.

LESLIE: Oh, oh, good. I was going to ask how did these regulations affect the previous migration, and I guess it's going to - when is this exemption going to be issued by the, you know, the next migration. And last and just real quickly, I'd like to get some more information for my daughter's class because they're studying environment and ecology and habitat and all that other stuff.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Leslie.

DUFF: Well, as far that when this is going to happen, we don't know. The normal process, first, an exemption is 120 days. We're hoping the FAA will speed that up. We've got a lot of support out there and people are calling in and asking them to speed the process. But I think they're working hard. Hey, I believe they realize that this rule was not written to stop an endangered species re-introduction program, and we're just trying to find a way to word an exemption so...

CONAN: And on Leslie's last point, we'll put a link to your website on our website so she can find out that way.

DUFF: Oh, please do, that'd be great. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Joe Duff, co-founder and CEO of Operation Migration. You can go to NPR.org in a few minutes time, and there'll be a link to their website there. Tomorrow NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Kelly McEvers and Deb Amos will join us to talk about what's changed in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.