“Rex is devoted not only to humanitarian causes, social justice causes, peace and freedom, but also to the environment. And this was an ideal way to fund a small, devoted group who are trying to save a species from the degradation we have visited upon them over the years.”
- Rosalie Howarth
Rex Board Perspective
Rosalie Howarth needs no introduction to Bay Area radio listeners, having been on the air on KFOG for the past 24 years, most recently hosting Acoustic Sunrise/Acoustic Sunset on the weekends. She also produces the Putumayo World Music Hour, syndicated nationally.
“I’m like a local radio gal,” says Howarth. “Seeing the changes in northern California over the last 40-50 years, that’s what I want to put my energies into – preserving and protecting the environment for the future.
“The Bay Area is completely saturated in the mindset of the ’60s and ’70s, of which the Grateful Dead were banner leaders. In those days we stood for environmentalism, anti-consumerism, leading a simpler life, using fewer resources. It’s all come back to us – it’s fashionable again now to be green. But for those of us in the Bay Area that still adhere to those values, it never went away, so I was pleased to be asked to serve on the Rex board as someone in the media to help with spreading the word.”
Her interest in birds, wildlife and the environment led her to suggest that Rex consider Operation Migration as a grantee. Now, she says, “I would just say to those who donate to Rex and join our Community Caravan, there’s a little fuzzy whooping crane chick right now in Maryland being hand raised by whooping crane puppets so they won’t imprint on humans. And later this summer they’ll be running around on their long gawky legs in a pen following an ultralight. And then up into the air for the first flight, and then the long flight all the way to the migration grounds.
“For all of you who have donated, there’s a little fuzzy-headed chick out there with your name on it!”
As you read this, a little group of Rex beneficiaries is settling in for a peaceful summer of domestic tranquility after a long journey.
No, critically endangered Whooping cranes.
Once abundant in North America, Whooping cranes (so called for their distinctive vocalizations) are the largest native bird on the continent – an adult male can be nearly five feet tall and have a wingspan approaching seven feet. While they once existed by the thousands, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw them hunted to near extinction, both for food and for their beautiful feathers. Exacerbating the problem was the loss of their habitat to urban development. By the 1940s, only 15 of the birds still existed, and the few hundred cranes living today are all descended from those birds.
Until recently, only one flock still lived in the wild and carried on its historic migration, spending winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and summers in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. A smaller number lived in zoos and other forms of captivity. Scientists worried about the likelihood of a single disaster – a hurricane, an epidemic of avian flu -wiping out most or all of those birds, and the impact that would have on a species still hovering on the brink of ceasing to exist. Adding to the concern was that fact that human encroachment was taking its toll on the Texas wintering grounds, with a freeway, oil refineries and other hazards nearby.
As a stopgap measure, a non-migratory flock, raised from the eggs of captive birds, was established in Florida, but everyone agreed that it would be even better to have a second migratory group in a different location. But how to get there? Since migratory birds learn their migration routes from their parents and there were no migratory parents to raise the offspring of captive birds, this was a troubling conundrum for years.
Enter Operation Migration, which got its start in 1989 when Canadian artist Bill Lishman, who’d always been fascinated with flight, first used an ultralight aircraft to fly with Canada geese. Four years later he and colleague Joe Duff successfully used ultralights to lead a flock of young geese on its first migration from Ontario to Virginia – and the flock successfully made it back the next spring. (The saga, slightly Hollywoodized and enhanced with a young Anna Paquin, became the 1996 hit movie “Fly Away Home.”)
The scientists at the Canada / United States Whooping Crane Recovery Team heard of this, and thought that what worked for geese might work for endangered cranes.
But, says Operation Migration’s Liz Condie, “It took more than a decade of tests and trials and experiments before the scientists in U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided they would entrust some very valuable eggs from a very endangered species to folks who were going to dress up in a costume, jump into an airplane, and try to lead these birds halfway across the continent! They placed a lot of requirements on us; we developed a lot of protocols to meet and overcome their every objection.
“For example, one of the things we encountered working with other species was that they became tame, so we had to develop a wildness protocol, which includes never letting the birds hear a human voice or see a human form. People think that we dress up to look like cranes, but we don’t. All we want to do is disguise the human form. We wear a whooping crane puppet on one arm, and that’s what we want them to focus on. Our idea is to make sure we don’t look like a person, so if they encounter you or me down the road somewhere, they go ‘Eek!’ and fly away.