When four whooping cranes swooped in for a landing at a Wisconsin wildlife refuge this week after an 11-day flight from Florida, the champagne corks popped here in Canada: The arrival of the giant white birds marked the latest success for Operation Migration, an Ontario-based outfit that teaches birds the lost art of flying home.
"We were ecstatic," Operation Migration manager Heather Ray said. "I don't think I slept for more than a couple of hours since they left Florida."
The cranes are at the centre of an improbable, but inspiring, ornithological experiment that began last fall when the young birds were led from Wisconsin to Florida by a pair of ultralight aircraft. Operation Migration officials hoped to teach the birds a migratory route that has been lost to the species as its numbers have dwindled.
Although there were once an estimated 10,000 whooping cranes in North America, there are now fewer than 400. Less than half of those live in the wild, and there is just one wild migratory flock left.
Operation Migration's goal is to establish another migratory flock, giving the species an increased chance of survival. As the bird's return to Wisconsin last week showed, their aerial path-finding lesson has been a success. The birds took just 11 days to fly back from Florida.
"The return of these whooping cranes is the icing on the cake," said Operation Migration co-founder and chairman Bill Lishman, who spent 52 days leading the cranes south last fall along with fellow pilots Deke Clark and Joe Duff.
Their flight, which was complicated by bad weather and logistical problems, took them 1,974 kilometres, from Nescedah, Wis., to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
The pilots flew south with eight birds. One was killed after hitting a power line in a windstorm. Two more were killed by bobcats. Another is still alive, but left the flock. After spending the winter living in the wild, feeding on clams and blue crabs, the four remaining birds made the return flight to Wisconsin last week entirely on their own schedule.
The birds were equipped with miniature satellite transmitters that allowed scientists to track them as they flew north. Data from the flight showed that their route was very close to the one they followed with the ultralights.
The cranes flew the route in a fraction of the time it took to make the journey south last fall.
Mr. Lishman, an artist and pilot, began his pioneering work with migratory birds in the mid-1980s, when he taught Canada geese to follow him as he flew in a home-built ultralight plane. Although Mr. Lishman was dismissed by some as an eccentric, his success earned him the respect of the scientific community and inspired a Hollywood movie -- Fly Away Home, a fictionalized account of his life.
Whooping cranes, which stand five feet tall and have a wingspan of eight feet, behave and fly very differently than the Canada geese that Mr. Lishman began working with. The cranes are much more independent than the geese, Mr. Lishman said, and tend not to fly in a straight line. Teaching the birds to migrate has called for highly unusual techniques. To prevent the cranes from "imprinting" on humans, for example, Operation Migration staff wear white costumes that give them the appearance of cranes whenever they are around the birds.
"It's a lot of work," said Mr. Lishman.
"But it's pretty exciting."