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Ann Geracimos is a writer with The Washington Times.

It’s easy enough to fall in love with a whooping crane. Just don’t try to kiss one. No matter how enamored they become, humans aren’t supposed to get close to the breed–at least when humans are without disguise and appear to the birds in recognizable form. A young chick can bond with a mammal and forget how to fly.

The tallest bird native to North America, the crane has a 5-foot wing span, a long, flexible neck, and a sharp beak that can peck out an eye. It also is one of the rarest birds around. The effort to keep the species alive has brought numerous people and organizations together through the years–mainly wildlife specialists who admit a fascination with the creature that borders on a kind of passion.

Pilot-photographer Joe Duff, CEO of the Canadian-based nonprofit Operation Migration, says he is drawn to the crane because it is so tenacious. “It came back from only 15 birds in 1942 and made it back again against all the odds,” he says. Fewer than 400 whooping cranes are alive today, he says.

Operation Migration was established 10 years ago to develop methods for teaching captive-reared birds to learn migration routes by following specially designed ultralight aircraft. Currently, Duff is one of three pilots leading 14 young birds on a laborious journey from their summer home at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to winter range at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The route was selected by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, an international group of American and Canadians whose task is to preserve the birds. Using the Wisconsin-to-Florida route, the team was able to avoid other paths used by wild cranes.

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All but one of the 14 cranes making the trip were bred and trained at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, in a program operated by the U.S. Geological Survey under the direction of Research Manager John French. (The research center is one of several hundred refuges belonging to the National Wildlife Refuge System in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service.)

To date, Patuxent has produced two-thirds of all the whooping cranes released in the wild. Pilots and birds left Necedah on October 10 and were expected to reach Florida sometime in late November. They fly low– between 100 and 1,000 feet–and spend only one to three hours in the air, stopping at prearranged sites each day. (Daily updates are given on www.operationmigration.org.) When birds are older and their wings are stronger, they can go longer distances, sometimes gliding along on wind currents.

“The really impressive thing to me about the ultralight is we teach them to migrate using a pattern that is totally different from a naturally migrating pattern,” French says. “In a natural situation, a chick flies with two adults.” With the ultralight, the young birds must use their wings the whole time, whereas grown birds on their own can stay up for eight to 12 hours at a time at a much higher level to take advantage of winds known as thermals.

This is the fourth year for the flight, undertaken in order to imprint young birds with a knowledge of the route. Almost miraculously, so far each group has found its way back unassisted to their summer home. The cranes then are older, but French says he still finds it hard to believe they can make the return using patterns that involve a whole different navigation system.

The present method isn’t ideal, he acknowledges, but the publicity provides an opportunity to talk about crane preservation overall. “The vast majority of it isn’t nearly as glamorous as flying behind an ultra- light,” French says. Breeding and raising chicks successfully takes a lot of hard work. “lt takes a long long time and a lot of setbacks.”

Duff and others involved will count their efforts a success when there are three self-sustaining populations of cranes making regular migrations on their own, which he estimates could take up to 20 years. Only then could they be removed from the endangered list. Cooperating groups include the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, one of whose members is the International Crane Foundation.

Another wild flock migrates between northern Canada and Texas, but the total number alive at the moment isn’t sufficient to ensure survival of the species, experts say. Patuxent has about a dozen breeding pairs but not all breed every year, says Kathy O’Malley, a crane technician in the USGS Crane Husbandry and Propagation Program.

Some very ingenious methods are employed to breed the chicks and launch them into adulthood as part of a wild flock. For one thing, pilots in the air and handlers on the ground wear shroud-like coverings to shield their identity. Different costumes are used on people who might have to do anything unpleasant with the cranes, such as taking blood samples.

Young chicks become accustomed to the sound of the airplane while still in the egg. After birth, they are fed with the help of a hand puppet that resembles a mother crane. Handlers never speak in front of a crane so they don’t get used to the human voice.

A primary consideration is preventing the birds from becoming tame by minimizing contact with non-costumed humans, O’Malley says. Becoming tame can happen quickly; the cranes can recognize people by shoelaces, she says. “We want them when they hear or see human coming to react the way any wild animal would. We don’t want them saying, ‘Hey, I wonder if they have a snack on them,'” O’Malley says.

The center aims to produce the wildest chick it can, so when it is released into the wild, it will want to stay there–far away from humans. Developing tameness is a hazard for any animal, whether one raised in captivity or the wild. “This is very difficult for us to do, not being birds ourselves–to train them in the ways of being a bird,” French says. “It’s impossible for us to teach them how to forage, what to look for and so forth.”

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To help them along, the center has constructed very large outdoor pens that provide plenty of foraging room so the birds are in an environment similar to one they might experience in the wild. Another major challenge is teaching chicks to learn to roost in water at night to keep land predators from attacking them while they sleep.

Losing a crane at this point in the project is a great emotional as well as scientific loss. It also is a costly one. A poacher who killed a bird in Florida was fined and put in jail. In order to know how much to fine the man, the judge asked what a single crane is worth. The answer was $200,000. “It was what we could provide evidence for,” French says. “It takes X number of years and 12 people working. It is a kind of ridiculous calculation, since how can you put a price on it?”

(c) 2004 News World Communications Inc.