WASHINGTON A flock of rare whooping cranes has been given the go-ahead to complete its inaugural winter migration after a U.S. agency lifted restrictions on the pilots, who will guide them wearing bird costumes.
The whooping cranes, part of North America's tallest flying bird species, have been in pens since last month while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigated whether the 1,285-mile flight violates regulations.
The FAA said on Monday it would grant a "one-time exemption" to the pilots flying ultralight aircraft leading the whooping cranes, who were stalled in Alabama on their journey from Wisconsin to two Florida refuges.
The issue arose because the pilots are being paid by the conservation group Operation Migration, violating FAA regulations that a pilot must hold a commercial rating to fly for hire. The Operation Migration pilots are licensed to fly lightweight sport aircraft.
"The FAA has granted an exemption to Operation Migration that will allow pilots to continue to aid the whooping crane migration," the agency said in a statement.
"Normally, the FAA limits light sport aircraft and pilots to personal flights without compensation. Because the operation is in 'mid-migration,' the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed," it said.
Operation Migration could not immediately be reached for comment, but a message on its Facebook page read: "YAHOO! Thank you to EVERYONE for your support! You signed petitions and posted comments and the FAA listened. We are thrilled beyond belief!"
Operation Migration is part of a public-private U.S.-Canadian partnership aimed at re-establishing migrating flocks of whooping cranes. The birds were nearly wiped out, falling to only 15 in 1941, David Sakrison, an Operation Migration director, said in an earlier interview.
The FAA said it would work with Operation Migration to develop a long-term solution.
FAA rules forbid sport aircraft from being flown to benefit a charity or business, a regulation aimed at barring the charities or businesses from giving rides in the light craft.
One flight corridor for whooping cranes runs from western Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The current flight is part of an effort that started in 2001 to restart an eastern U.S. flyway from Wisconsin to Florida.
"The goal is to create a new wild flock and this is their historical range," Sakrison said earlier.
The cranes are bred and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, then transferred to a refuge in Wisconsin.
The birds are reared by conservationists in bird suits that conceal their human features. They become conditioned to follow the suited handlers and a plane engine.
On the migratory route, the cranes follow the small plane flown by a pilot in a bird costume. The flock flies from 25 to 50 miles a day. Once the route is flown the birds can make the return flight on their own.
They were grounded about 500 miles from their goal on December 21 following an outside complaint, Sakrison said.
The group left Wisconsin with 10 birds. One was lost en route but has been returned to Wisconsin, he said.
About 90 cranes have been established on the eastern route since 2001. They have started to reproduce in the wild in a slow expansion, with sexual maturity reached at six or seven years.
The whooping crane in North America's tallest bird, standing more than five feet high as adults, and wingspan can reach almost eight feet. They have white bodies with a red crown and are named for their whooping sound.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Greg McCune and Paul Thomasch)