Whoopers, Who's Your Momma?

Whooping Cranes

Correspondent Charlie Rose reports on a group of people trying to teach a flock of rare birds the art of migration. Their goal is to bring back the whooping crane, which, not long ago, was nearly extinct.

Using some pretty untraditional methods, the group will lead a flock of the majestic birds on a 1,200-mile journey south for the winter.

And here they are doing just that, with 14 young whooping cranes born last spring, en route to winter in Florida. They're following the only mother they've ever known, an aircraft and its pilot, Joe Duff.

"The bird thinks of you as parent, guardian. They're a spectacular bird," says Duff, who is part of a four-year experimental program called "Operation Migration" that's trying to establish a new migratory flock of whooping cranes – "whoopers" - after nearly a century of these birds teetering on the brink of extinction.

"Most people in North America have never seen one. You know, it's the most endangered of North American birds. Back in the '40s, there were only 15. That's all," says Duff. "It was close. Very close."

So Duff, an artist and amateur pilot, has teamed up with scientists at the U.S. government-run Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where they breed and raise the cranes.

"When eggs are hatched, that's when we start playing a recording of the aircraft engine to the bird," says Duff. "[To] condition the bird to the sound of the aircraft."

This will be the sounds of their leader on that long migration south some day, so right from the start these small whoopers learn to listen… and follow.

The first challenge, though, is to make sure these impressionable young birds still know they're birds, so they can make it in the wild someday. That's why Duff and the scientists at Patuxent have set up a sort of artificial reality for the whoopers, to fool them into thinking they're actually being raised by fellow cranes, not people.

So they use puppets that look like "mama" to feed and care for the birds. And all the bird handlers hide under full-body white costumes, so the birds have no idea they're really being trained by humans.

The whooper chicks go through five months of arduous boot camp – strength training in the water, learning to follow their undercover handlers, and most importantly, when they're a bit older, to follow the plane that will eventually take them on that two-month-long flight south.

The aircraft, called an ultralight, is the heart of this migratory experiment. So who could refuse an offer to go up in one of these contraptions?

It's a bit rough in the ultralight, and you can feel every little gust of wind. But Duff says the birds actually surf off the wind coming off the plane.

Duff said the ultralight can go up to 50 miles an hour, not bad for a plane that can land just about anywhere, and costs less than most luxury cars.

Once the birds are five months old, their black wingtip feathers, which are crucial for flying, are in. And that's when the cranes that Duff and his team have cared for since they were just eggs are ready to start the migration.

In early October, Duff took off from an airstrip in Wisconsin en route to Florida, with a flock of whooping cranes trailing behind.

And the experiment is working. The birds are following Duff's ultralight, the lead bird gliding on the air coming off the plane's wings as Duff predicted. When they fly over towns, Duff and his birds become the main attraction.

"I've seen this scene 100 times. Where the husband is in the backyard with his coffee and his pajamas, you know, he sees us coming, and the coffee goes, and he goes charging in the back door," says Duff.

"And as we pass over the house, his wife and kids come charging out the front door. And the cameras are going. And you wave."

Once the whooping cranes land, it's time for them to follow "mama bird" to where they'll spend the night, in a pen set up every day by Operation Migration's ground crew on borrowed farmland, wherever they are.

"So, as far as the birds are concerned, there's this great maid service that's following them every day, and setting the pen up," says Duff. "Water is there, foods there. It's terrific."

"And he's got a white costume," says Rose.

"Exactly, exactly," says Duff.

The whole idea for this migration actually came about a decade ago, back when Duff was a professional photographer. Duff and an artist friend of his used to fly small planes just for fun, and one day, his buddy encountered a flock of ducks that began following his aircraft.

"And as he flew by, they all took off, and I guess he was in their midst and he was surrounded by all these ducks. And he flew along for a minute or two just mesmerized," says Duff.

It inspired them to go on an adventure of their own, getting a flock of Canada geese to follow their ultralight planes on a little trip they filmed.

The stunt came to the attention of Hollywood producers who turned the artist's real-life adventure into art itself. A popular film, "Fly Away Home" tells the story of a little girl and her father who help some stranded geese.

Once this wild goose-chase idea came to the attention of the scientific community, researchers realized Duff was onto something and could help save the endangered whooping cranes.

On Dec. 5, almost two months into the trip, they're behind schedule, mostly because of the weather. On this day, luckily, the fog lifted and they set off. But there's usually more to worry about than just weather.

Duff radioed his ground chief, Heather Ray. Just as they crossed over the Appalachian Mountains, an adventurous young whooping crane decided to go astray.

With so much time and money invested in training each bird, a loss like this would be devastating. One of the other pilots who flies backup for Joe has to find that missing bird.

Duff says it's not the first time one of these cranes has disastrously strayed off course. This past year, Duff says, some got too close to a nuclear power plant in Tennessee. When one of Joe's other pilots went after the missing cranes, following them into restricted airspace over the nuclear plant, the plane and the birds got a little surprise from two F-18s, and scattered.

Back over the Appalachians, one of the Operation Migration pilots has that stray bird in sight, and leads him back to Joe's flock.

The problem is averted, but there are still many more miles to go.

Dr. George Archibald, the world's leading crane expert, took 60 Minutes Wednesday to the Wisconsin wilderness to show proof of Operation Migration's success.

"This is a dream of a lifetime for me," says Archibald, pointing to two birds that were trained a couple years ago. Like most of Duff's past trainees, they made their way back to Wisconsin in the spring all by themselves.

"On that magic day in mid-April, they felt the urge. And they started circling in the sky all on their own without any costume people leading them," says Archibald. "And off they went, straight towards Wisconsin. And they repeated the migration that they were taught."

In four years, the group has introduced more than 50 whoopers back into the wild, one fifth of all the migratory whooping cranes in the world. And the idea is that one day these birds will teach their own chicks the same migration route that Duff and his team showed them.

"When these birds in Wisconsin start to breed, they'll be taking their young with them to Florida," says Archibald.

Does he find it miraculous that they can then find their way back? "Well, in many birds, it's that way," says Archibald. "It seems that they get a GPS reading in their little computer. And they want to get back to those exact coordinates."

And how do they determine the exact coordinates? "We don't know how that happens," says Archibald. "But it happens."

This year's flock is just about to graduate. They've learned the migration route. And at 9:39 a.m., on Dec. 12, they came in for their final landing at a wildlife refuge in central Florida – 1,200 miles from Wisconsin.

"Boy, it's worth it when you finally make that last trip in," says Duff. "Think, this is the last time we're going to fly with these birds. They're wild from now on. So that's kind of a neat feeling. We've finally done our job. It took a long time, but it's finally over."