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Reviving species - with a puppet and planes

In bid at repopulation, costumed pilots lead whooping cranes on their old migration south.

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Bird no. 303 was the troublemaker. No. 307 was antisocial. No. 310 was aggressive, 311 was aloof, and 307 cried at his costumed handler. But this week, the 16 whooping cranes - gliding obediently behind three gas-powered flying machines with human "bird mothers" - banked to the right above the Big K department store. They touched down on an unremarkable patch of marshland in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. And, finally, after two months and 1,200 miles, the gangly birds were home.

It has to be one of man's strangest odysseys since Orville and Wilbur Wright - human beings dressed as birds flying machines with birds following who think that those humans - in their planes - are birds. But humans go to great lengths to snub Darwin: Like the reintroduction of red wolves and elk in the Smoky Mountains, this was part of a wider effort to drag animals back from the brink of extinction and repopulate regions with species that have disappeared. Florida was the cranes' winter home before they died off in the East; this journey was designed to show them back to their old habitat.

It's the third year in a row that ultralights have led flocks of endangered whooping cranes on a migration south, but this group took more time, and got into far more trouble. The pilots were constantly corralling AWOL cranes; one day, a few birds wandered off course near a nuclear power plant and attracted the attention of an F-16 on maneuvers. The Air Force pilots wanted an explanation for men in bird costumes flying near a nuke plant.

LeRoi Johnson was one in a crowd of about 500 last week, huddled in a parking lot off Route 19. Sitting in his beach chair in the shadow of the Crystal River Mall, his binoculars aimed at the morning sky, he watched quietly as the cranes approached. It was one of the more beautiful sights of his life, he said. Fifteen birds trailed one aircraft; No. 312 had an ultralight to itself. Johnson had checked the online flight journal a few times daily since the birds took off - enough to know that the 16 rarely flew together, and they challenged the ultralights for the lead.

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