Birds & Birding

Learning from Whooping Cranes Learning from Us

September 27, 2013

Juvenile whooping cranes being trained to fly by an ultralight plane. Image credit: College of Computing /Flickr through a Creative Commons license.


So much of conservation feels like gardening. If a cavity nesting bird requires predator excluders on every successful nest, is it wild? Will we have to light and tend prescribed fires in perpetuity?

Maybe not, according to this article, which was the cover story in Science a month ago. It demonstrates a quite short time horizon — eight years — for an endangered species to move from naïve and human-dependent to savvy.

I admit I’ve been a sap for Whooping Cranes since I got to routinely seen them wintering with Sandhills in Payne’s Prairie during my own seven-year stint in Gainesville, FL. (And, of course, the fact that the researchers an ultralight to artificially train captive cranes to make their first migratory flight does make me slightly wistful for the days when I would hang out of aircrafts to collect data.) But really what I like about this article is that it answers a problem that plagues conservation in terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems without having to run out and collect a bunch of new data.

Migratory species from groupers to salmon, monarchs to songbirds are systematically challenged through their routes and vulnerable life stages by all conceivable manner of anthropogenic and natural hurtles. In true reductionist (and restricted funding) spirit, we tend to study the effects of our conservation interventions (if we study them at all) on the impact of conservation on a particular life phase in a particular place or by following a slim number of individuals on their circuitous routes. We hope that the story can then be pieced together and extrapolated wildly (or carefully) to our target population.

In this case, the authors were able to use the existing rich data set on Whooping Cranes and their human-intervened migration patterns to tease out an effect of social learning for improved migration accuracy versus the genetic aspects of migration. Younger birds learn how to migrate first by traveling with the ultralight, then continue to learn from older birds. Seven years of experience translated into a 38% improvement in migratory accuracy.

Eight years is not an unreasonable timeline for conservation planning, and the apparent gain in wisdom and autonomy of the individual birds gives us hope that our gardening exercise could be quite term-limited after all. While the paper focuses on social learning of Whooping Cranes, it is also an implicit reminder of how science itself can be a interspecies process of social learning: people learning from nature learning from people.

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