The Great Glide

What does an animal do when it doesn’t know its migratory path? When it has no elder to show it and no clues as to where or how to go?

Such was the dilemma for the whooping crane. Pushed to the brink of extinction by hunting and loss of habitat, North American whooping cranes were in grave danger.

Their normal journey followed a flyway from inland breeding grounds to coastal wintering areas. They typically did the flight in stages of 300-500 kilometers (185‑300 miles).

Cranes are excellent navigators. They follow well-defined paths that young cranes learn from their parents. But by 1941, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in the world.

Careful conservation efforts in the wild and in captivity have brought those numbers up to an estimated 431 individuals today. Still, conservationists were faced with a challenge. How do you recreate a migration route for hand-reared chicks that have no knowledge of their ancestors’ historic journeys?

A creative solution was hatched. Young birds were trained to follow ultralight aircraft. The aircraft guided the birds along a safe route and showed the birds the “correct” stopovers to use.

These birds are so smart, they only need to be shown once. Having made the trip to the south with their guides, the cranes could carry out the return leg and all future migrations on their own. And as the crane population grows, the cranes can pass their new knowledge down to future generations of birds.

Whooping cranes needed a lesson on where to go when they migrated.

Migration Madness

Our planet is always on the move. Millions of animals migrate. They use a variety of ways to help them get where they’re going. Some rely on Earth’s magnetic field. Some rely on environmental clues such as temperature, light levels, and the availability of food sources.

Others use the sun, moon, and stars to help them make their way. Still others rely on physical landmarks or scents to show them where they should go. Whatever tools animals use, their abilities to migrate help them survive.