Bird Leader - Y Magazine
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Bird Leader

David H. Ellis

David Ellis

By Todd Michaelis, ’90

If you ever see an ultralight aircraft followed by a flock of whooping cranes, there is a chance David H. Ellis, ’69, PhD University of Montana ’73 (Catherine Hunt, ’68), Oracle, Ariz., had something to do with it. Ever since he was four years old, Ellis has had a fascination with birds, and he has traveled the world studying eagles, falcons, and cranes. Because of his fieldwork with falcons in Mongolia, he was made a member of the Academy of Ghengis Khan. Some of his most recent work has been with teams that develop crane migration techniques.

“Most crane species are in danger and many populations have been entirely eliminated,” Ellis says. “So we’re developing techniques to establish new flocks of whooping cranes migrating on routes separate from other cranes.” Leading cranes on their first migration takes creative techniques such as using surrogate parents riding in land vehicles or ultralights.

Conditioning cranes to follow surrogate parents has to start early. Crane chicks begin following their parents through the marshes within days of hatching. “If a human is used in place of a parent crane, the chicks will follow the human,” Ellis says. “For example, by using a puppet head you can point out food and they’ll go peck at it. As the cranes mature and approach fledgling age they’ll flap their wings and follow you. At some point they discover they can fly. To stay ahead of them thereafter, you must jump in the back of a pickup truck or pilot an ultralight.”?