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Young Whoopers Stay the Course When They Follow a Wise Old Bird


An image of a young whooping crane on its first fall migration, guided by an Operation Migration ultralight. Image source:Joe Duff/Operation Migration USA Inc.


All whooping cranes are doing migration practice following an ultralight piloted aircraft. Image source: Heather Ray/Operation Migration USA Inc.

It is known that an old horse is a good guide, so does an old bird. Recently, a new study published on Science found that old whooping crane (Grus americana) can assist young cranes to migrate along more efficient course.

The whooping crane is an endangered species which was near extinction in the 1940s with fewer than 25 individuals. To provide better protection for whooping cranes, UMD biologist Thomas Muller and his colleagues conducted a study on the whooping cranes in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge at Wisconsin.  After analyzing the migration data of whopping cranes for eight years, “We noticed that many of the whooping cranes’ behaviors might be spread via their culture.” Miller said that young whooping cranes can improve their migration skill by learning the migration course from old whooping cranes.

The whooping cranes in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge are all captive born individuals. At their first migration to Florida, they will follow an ultralight piloted aircraft to travel from Wisconsin breed grounds to Florida winter grounds. After that, the migration of whooping cranes will not be guided by the ultralight piloted. The researchers found that experienced, old whooping cranes can help the cranes travel to the destination in courses that are more efficient.

When a one-year-old whooping crane is migrating with older cranes, the average deviation from the course is only 63.9 kilometers. While, without the guidance of old cranes, the one-year-old cranes will deviate the course as far as 97.1 kilometers and among them, 25% will even deviate more than 150 kilometers. Using data between 2002 and 2009, it is predicted that seven years of migration experiences could improve the overall migration performance by 38%. As long as a wise old bird is in the cranes, the whole group could maintain the right course. The researchers hence made an assumption that older cranes possessed superior ability in distinguishing geographic features and coping with adverse weather.

The whooping cranes’ learning on migration course can last for many years and what is learned from old birds can enhance younger generation’s navigation capability. However, “To certain ages, their improvement in migration performance tends to be flattened out. But, we don’t know when this will happen.” Miller supplied:” genetic relatedness might play a role here, but we have not found that the ties of consanguinity have significant influence on migration.” Surprisingly, the researchers also noted that the migrating groups’ size made no difference.

In consideration of the close relationship between migration and breeding, these new findings have significant importance on the protection for endangered migratory birds. “As time goes by, these birds can breed better.” Miller said. If the whooping cranes can also gather experience through learning like what they do on migration, then the extra experience could be the key to increase the whooping cranes’ field breeding rate.


Image sourceOperation Migration USA Inc.