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Whooping cranes to fly into county

By Staff
Jonathan Willis
County residents will have the opportunity to see a rare sight in the coming days.
A group of whooping cranes will fly into the county sometime within the next week. The rare birds will be led by aircraft and will travel with a team of volunteers as they move south from Wisconsin.
The aircraft-led trip relies on the bird's natural instincts, called imprinting.
Imprinting means the just-hatched waterfowl chick immediately trusts the first object it sees and follows the object. As soon as the chicks hatch, they bond with their parents and become inseparable. The Operation Migration team acts as surrogate parents, helping the birds imprint on the aircraft and conditioning them to fly with it. Later, when the birds are mature, they are led south by the OM team on a pre-determined route to a safe wintering site.
Most waterfowl learn the migration route and its destination wintering area from their parents. If birds are orphaned or raised in captivity and then released, they will not migrate. They join the resident population and fight for survival in the harsh northerly winters.
All of this is a particular concern for endangered species. To ensure their survival, birds are often raised in captivity. Once mature, the healthy birds can be released into the wild; however, they need to be taught a safe migratory route.
In the past, several methods including cross-fostering were tried without success. Many believe the techniques developed by Operation Migration offer the only hope for re-establishing migratory flocks of several endangered species.
As the birds mature and develop flight feathers, they exercise regularly, following the handler and aircraft up and down the runway. Their first flight is behind the ultra light: as it lifts into the air, the young birds follow. The flock is led on flights daily, weather permitting, building their strength and endurance for the autumn migration. When the time comes, the birds follow the ultra light aircraft, as they would their parents, on a pre-determined route south.
The route south this year will take them across Alabama for the first time. The team, which is made up of volunteers from a wide background of fields, will make their first stop in the state at Russellville Municipal Airport. The crew will eventually stop in Florida where the birds will be released.
Officials with the team are not sure what day they will be in the area, but it is expected to be within the next five days.
Their travel time depends on weather conditions that allow the birds to fly.
Bill Pugh, chairman of the Russellville Airport Authority, said it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for county residents to see such a sight.
"We are very excited about this," Pugh said. "We may never get to see a whooping crane again."
Though the 12-member team traveling with the birds will stay at the airport, the cranes will be at an undisclosed location in the county.
There will be a designated area set aside where spectators can view the birds as they fly out.
Pugh said that anyone interested in knowing when the birds will arrive and will be flying out should call Blue Diamond Aviation at 331-9000.