USGS USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Flight Training at Necedah

The Whooping Crane Easter Partnership (WCEP) chick training starts before the chicks hatch out of their eggs, here at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD.  We begin playing a recording of an adult brood call and engine revving from the ultralight aircraft to the eggs while they are still in the incubator, a few days before hatching.  Once hatched, the chicks start their training with the ultralight by following it around a circle pen.  The ultralight is driven on the outside by a costumed technician, while the chicks follow behind, safely on the inside of the pen.  As the chicks get older, we begin socializing the chicks into larger groups and the training is moved to a larger field.  Here the chicks have more space to run and flap their wings as they follow the ultralight across the field.  Several days before fledging, the chicks are transported in crates to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in Central Wisconsin. There, they continue their training and learn to fly behind the ultralight.

This year we had three groups of chicks transported out to Necedah.  All three groups arrived healthy and without any injuries.  Up at Necedah, the training takes place just after sunrise because that is generally when the wind is calm enough for the ultralight to fly.  A typical training session starts with pilots from Operation Migration landing the ultralight on the grass runway in front of the pen.  Two costumed technicians arrive at the pen at the same time and prepare to release the chicks for training.  When the pilot is ready, the pen gates are opened by the technicians and the chicks run out toward the ultralight.  So as not to distract the chicks, the technicians hide out of sight during training.  After training is complete, the technicians “reappear” to help lead the chicks back into the pen.  We use positive reinforcement in the form of treats to reward the chicks for following the ultralight and to encourage them back into the pen.  Early in the training at Necedah, the pilots taxi the aircraft up and down the runway with the chicks following.  When the chicks begin to fledge, the pilots will take off and hope that the chicks will continue to follow in the air.  As the summer progresses, the chicks’ wings get stronger and they are able to fly longer circuits around the refuge.  As the chicks mature, we slowly merge the three groups into one large group in preparation for the migration in October.  This year we hope to have 18 birds making the trek to Florida behind the ultralight aircraft.

Richard Van Heuvelen (Operation Migration) walks Group One down the runway after arriving at Necedah. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Richard Van Heuvelen (Operation Migration) walks Group One down the runway after arriving at Necedah. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Group One chicks look around their new pen for the summer. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Group One chicks look around their new pen for the summer. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Chicks 6-06 and 7-06 investigate their freshwater pans in the pen. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Chicks 6-06 and 7-06 investigate their freshwater pans in the pen. Photo by Charlie Shafer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center