Ten young whooping cranes and the bird-like plane they think is their mother had flown more than halfway to their winter home in Florida when US federal regulators stepped in.
Now the birds and the plane are grounded in Alabama, while the Federal Aviation Administration investigates whether the journey violates regulations because the pilot was being paid by a conservation group to lead the cranes on their first migration instead of working for free.
Administration regulations stipulate that only pilots with commercial pilot licenses can fly for hire. The pilots of Operation Migration’s plane are instead licensed to fly sport aircraft because that is the category of aircraft the group’s small, open plane with its rear propeller and bird-like wings falls under.
Administration regulations also prohibit sport aircraft — which are sometimes of exotic design — from being flown to benefit a business or charity.
The rules are aimed, in part, at preventing businesses or charities from taking passengers for joyrides in sometimes risky planes.
“That’s a valid rule. They should not be hired to do that, but it wasn’t written, I believe, to stop a wildlife reintroduction,” Joe Duff, an Operation Migration co-founder and one of its pilots, said.
The conservation group has agreed voluntarily to stop flying and has applied to the administration for a waiver.
“We are considering that waiver,” administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
He said he did not know when a decision would be made or whether it would be made before spring, when the birds would return to Wisconsin.
“The same regulations that we’re applying to these pilots we’re applying to everybody who holds that type of [pilot] certificate,” Lundsford said. “The regulations are very clear and anyone who is a pilot holding that certificate is expected to know what the duties, privileges and limitations are.”
Operation Migration is part of a US-Canadian partnership of government and private organizations trying to re-establish migrating flocks of whooping cranes. The cranes nearly became extinct, dwindling to only 15 birds in 1941. One flyway has already been re--established, but that flock of over 100 birds is vulnerable to extinction should a disaster strike, Duff said.
The grounded birds are part of the organization’s 10-year effort to re-establish an Eastern flyway that disappeared in the late 1800s when the last whooping cranes flying that route died off, he said. Since there were no birds still flying the route, conservationists had to teach young cranes how to make the journey.
The birds are bred and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. A small group of conservationists in baggy bird suits that conceal their human features are the first thing the birds see when they begin pecking their way out of their shells. The conservationists also give the birds their first nourishment, thus imprinting themselves as “parent.” The first thing they hear is a recording of a crane’s brood call combined with the purr of the small plane’s engine.
The birds are later transferred to a wildlife refuge in Wisconsin, where they are conditioned to follow the baggy-suited humans and purring plane. By autumn, they are ready to begin the 2,068km journey from Wisconsin to two wildlife refuges in Florida. The cranes glide behind the plane, surfing on the wake created by its wings. The pilots are dressed in the same baggy white suits and have a fake bird beak attached to one arm, adding to the illusion that the plane is a bird.