What happens when cranes need to head south for the winter, but the ones who know the way have been hunted to near extinction? As 48 Hours Correspondent Jennifer Laird reports, one Idaho farmer, Kent Clegg, has been enlisted to lead eight sandhill cranes he's raised from birth over the Rocky Mountains on their first migration.
"I was driving down the road, and the next thing I knew, it was right off the side flying with me, recalls Clegg. "And that was the first time that I realized, you know, you could actually get them to follow different things."
In the early 1980s, Clegg raised a pet sandhill crane. He had no idea that his barnyard science experiment would soon become the hope of scientists desperately trying to save endangered cranes. Out of the 15 species of cranes, approximately seven are close to being endangered.
There are half a million sandhill cranes in the wild but less than 200 whooping cranes left. Although some have figured out how to raise whooping cranes in captivity, no one had actually taught the birds to fly in migration.
No one, that is, until they heard about Clegg and realized that if he could teach the sandhill variety to migrate, he might be able to guide the whooping cranes as well.
"The challenge has been to figure out a way to migrate birds," says Clegg. "It's a learned behavior," he says. "They follow their parents."
In the absence of parents, however, the cranes turn to Clegg for direction.
"We'll go to a nest and take one egg basically from each nest and bring them home and put them in the incubator," Clegg explains.
A sandhill crane
"Then we capitalize on that and get them to follow four-wheelers," Clegg says. "Eventually we bring in the airplane. The call is essential. I mean, even when I fly the airplane, you're making that call to them, just telling them to come along."
At 6 a.m. on the appointed migration day, a half a year's work is about to be put to the test. Clegg 's team arrives: Jim Lewis, an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Keith, Clegg 's older brother; and Harold Spaulding. He'll fly the scout plane and check out wind conditions and landing strips.
It's an 800-mile experiment and they'll be gone for almost a month. A loose screw, a blown tire or an attack from the crae's worst enemy - a hungry eagle - could spoil the effort entirely.
The birds are so eager to fly they take off before Clegg can climb into the plane. Pretty soon, the cranes settle down and cruise at about 35 mph. Clegg hopes to cover 100 miles a day.
The cranes follow Clegg down ancient migration routes. His tiny plane flies altitudes of 9,000 feet, weaving through the often windy and unpredictable passes of the Rocky Mountains.
The cranes exhibit different personalities; some seem more standoffish than others, he says.
Farmer Kent Clegg
Exhausted and frail, No. 107 abandons the flock to land. But like wild cranes, the rest keep flying. Clegg will know it's time to stop when the birds start to pant, just like dogs. These birds have never flown this far in one day before.
While the route is carefully planned, the landing spots are not. Spaulding has to pick an inviting field from the air and hope for a friendly farmer.
The ground crew sets up portable pens to protect the birds from predators, while Clegg heads back to find the missing crane. He picks up the signal from the transmitter attached to No. 107's leg and soon have it back with the other birds.
A downdraft almost pushes Clegg's plane onto the floor of a canyon. The birds get lost and it takes the crew nearly an hour and a half to round up the flock. And just when they thought the worst was over, Clegg looks back and notices that one bird is darker than the rest. It is an eagle in hot pursuit that is chased away by the scout plane.
But the danger is always there. In 1996 and 1998, Clegg lost two birds to predators.
Finally, after 15 days of ups and downs, Clegg and his crew are only 50 miles from their destination: New Mexico's Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, winter home to more than 100,000 birds.
"Getting them to follow the airplane - it's not easy, but it's not the hard part," says Clegg.
"The hard part is getting them to survive once they're there nd to act like normal cranes," he says. "And, you know, it's neat. We just lead them over there to where the other cranes are, and then I just sort of slip out through the tall corn, and they didn't even see where I went."
"It's kind of a bittersweet sort of thing, because you can't help but get attached to them after spending so much time with them," says Clegg.
"But it's also really rewarding to know that they'reÂ…surviving in the wild and that they're actually doing what all the other cranes are doing," he adds.
After this journey, Clegg guides sandhill cranes and the rarer whooping cranes on other successful migrations, reaching for the skies, and doing his part to protect wildlife.