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Pilots Help Endangered Whooping Cranes with "Helicopter Parenting"

Whooping cranes with nest.

Migrating whooping cranes led by Operation Migration ultralight pilots.

Stiff Headwinds

They almost didn't make it. In 1941, after widespread draining of their wetland habitat and hunting cranes for food, feathers and sport, only 21 whooping cranes (Grus americana) remained. And these birds traveled together from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Any big storm or tragic accident could have easily wiped out the flock. So a plan was hatched thirteen years ago to create a new flock of whooping cranes in eastern North America.

After some successes, as well as some devastating setbacks, the flock now numbers 106 birds. They've mastered migration - led by Operation Migration's ultralight pilots, but still struggle with nesting and raising chicks. To help them overcome this hurdle, a different kind of aircraft would be needed.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge boasts large expanses of freshwater suited for both nesting cranes and biting insects. International Crane Foundation/LightHawk

Negative Buzz

Biologists had long suspected vicious Wisconsin black flies were driving cranes off their nests. For 30 days, the birds must sit tight on their eggs. To make things more challenging, they must do this during the height of Wisconsin's black fly season.

Knowing this, scientists from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) set up traps and fake nests throughout the flat open water of Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge where cranes nest to monitor the buzzing menace. They also selectively applied Bti, a biological control agent and the most common, low-impact way to reduce adult black fly numbers, to dampen the swarms' impact on the nesting cranes.

Scientists keep tabs on nesting cranes during daily flights donated by LightHawk volunteer pilots. Eva Szyszkoski International Crane Foundation/LightHawk

Helicopter Parenting

ICF needed to keep a close eye on the nesting pairs to see if their treatments worked, and salvage abandoned eggs to hatch artificially if they didn't.

"Whooping cranes are really big," says Kelley Tucker, who was an executive with ICF before coming to LightHawk, "you can see them from 1,000 feet up." Kelley knew flying over the nest sites would be a superb way to monitor the hopeful parents. So LightHawk volunteer pilots traveled from Connecticut, Maine, Michigan and Minnesota flying their own small aircraft to donate the surveys. Much like new parents themselves, the pilots monitored the nests twice daily to ensure the eggs were safe.

Repeated circling over nesting cranes is shown as yellow spirals in this flight tracker graphic from a typical aerial survey.

Flying For the Birds

Volunteer pilots Jamie Gamble (CT), Pat Healy (MI), James Knowles (ME) and Richard Sedgwick (MN) answered the call to help bolster the endangered species' population. "I have been impressed with the enthusiasm and willingness of the LightHawk pilots to do some rather difficult, strenuous, flying. They are definitely not your run-of-the-mill surveys," remarked Ann Lacey, ICF Crane Research Coordinator. "Their contribution to whooping crane conservation is almost beyond measure, as the information they allow us to gather is just not possible from the ground."

Each pilot performed multiple days of challenging flying before passing the baton to the next pilot. Together, they contributed 41 separate flights over 25 days.

adult whooping crane with chick: International Crane Foundation

A Stork Delivery for a Standout Crane

On May 1st, VP Jamie Gamble prepped his Cessna 182 Skylane and took off on his daily nest surveys. "The crane flights were the highlight of my aviation life," recalls Jamie, "it was like a working vacation doing what I enjoy." He was eager to check on a whooping crane pair thought to be infertile, but who had been sitting on a clutch of eggs. Undeterred by the black flies, the pair remained on their nest and persevered. And then something amazing happened.

"You're not supposed to," Kelley recalled of her days with ICF, "but sometimes you have your favorites. You're standing in a bird blind out in the field, and some cranes just stand out to you." As if reward for arranging the month-long flights, the first chick hatched was from the pair thought to be infertile. And the mother was one of Kelley's special cranes.