“They’re heeeeere!” Flambo said to Corky. “Wonder what took them so long”, Corky replied. “I told you we should have taken a left instead of a right back there at the bottom of Lake Michigan,” Mendota scolded. “Just remember the first rule when riding on the New York subway…. DON’T make eye contact!” Druid commanded.
“Wow!” I whispered to myself as we reached the end of the path and into view of the birds.
“How Big and White they are!” Whoopers have a way of “Wowing” you no matter how much time you spend around them. Then back to reality, I held my breath fearing that just a single exhale would frighten them skyward and forever away. But they simply stood as still as if in a picture and appeared to be looking at something in the far distance only they could see. “I can’t believe they’re not looking at us!” I whispered to Marianne. “They’re looking at us alright,” she replied, shaking her head. “They’re just doing their whooper chick thing.” The scene took on the tentative air of a “boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other” Junior High School dance. But finally the four chicks gave us the pleasure of their gaze and began walking haltingly towards us, curious but uncertain. It was certainly not the tears, bear hugs and wet kisses reunion I was hoping for, but it was a start.
They allowed us just so close but no closer as Corky asked in a thought balloon, “And what, may we ask, brought you folks to our little neighborhood?” We thought back, “We were just in the area and thought we’d stop in to say Hi.” Then they eyeballed the pen with more suspicion than a couple of newlyweds standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon who suddenly remembered the Life Insurance Policy they’d taken out on each other the day before they left on their honeymoon. “What kind of camper is that, anyway?” Flambo asked. “You got me,” Corky replied, “but it sure don’t look like a Days Inn”!
It wasn’t hard to see this capture was going to be no walk in the park…. or into the pen. Rather, it was going to be a battle of trust vs. distrust, the diabolical and ruthless conniving of the costume people against the natural whooper distrust of all things human. To win, we would have to coax all four birds into the pen at one time. Doing the “Dirty” to just one or two or even three would almost certainly send the fourth away forever, and in this all or nothing game, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. We had just one chance and one chance only to catch them all and if we blew it, it was going to be a long, sad, humiliating ride home for the Visiting Team. Our strategy was therefore clear and simple. We must establish trust, then betray that trust. And that surprises you? Why? That’s been the Modus Operandi of us humans since we crawled out of the primordial ooze. “Ladies and Gentlemen… Place your bets and Let the Games Begin!”
However, the bell had already rung for the end of Round One as darkness was fast approaching. Even if we were lucky enough to coax them into the pen tonight, we were still awaiting a government Capture Permit and possibly Health Certificates which would hopefully arrive the next morning. And leaving them to stress out and rake their beaks on the sides of the pen all night was not an option. So we put our time to good use sizing up our opponents, being “Up Close and Personal”, while plying them with time tested opening lines like “What’s a nice whooper like you doing in a place like Michigan instead of Wisconsin?” and “What’s your favorite color besides white…. and “When was the last time you had your compass calibrated?” Then off we went for meals and a motel with a sign that said, “Free breakfast from 6-10.” I could hardly sleep in anticipation…for the free breakfast, I mean.
Next morning began with a great big free “swallow a tasteless brick and wash it down with sawdust” motel breakfast. Then off to the site I headed when I suddenly remembered what it said on the first page of that big yellow book, “The Human Condition for Dummies.” It explained that each of us is the sum total of all the decisions we have made in our lives. That made my first decision of the day an especially important one. Should I proceed to the site where the birds were or should I drive to the local Emergency Room and have my stomach pumped! A hard swallow and a butt wiggle of uncertainty later, I headed for the birds as the ICF crew headed to the grocery store for bird treats.
I had just turned on to the pond road when a white pickup pulled up alongside and stopped. “They just left,” Steve said. “Looks like they were headed over to a nearby ag field.” Steve lived down the road and was an avid birder. “I keep a pair of binoculars in my car, another in my truck and another on my motorcycle.” He went on to tell me his daughter was finishing up her degree in Wildlife Biology at Michigan State University and had banded over 3000 birds last year. “She’d love to talk to you folks, but she’s in the middle of her finals.”
I turned on the tracking receiver as I neared the site. It was quiet… the kind of quiet that is so loud you can hardly stand the noise. Have they left the area? Did we miss our chance at capture? I madly began looking in the back seat for the novelty shop nose, eyeglasses and eyebrows disguise I brought along to wear back to Wisconsin just in case we failed to catch the birds. That’s when I began to hear the wonderful sound of those beeps over the pounding of my heart…. faint at first, then louder and louder until the four magnificent white spots made their final approach for landing. And that’s how you spell “RELIEF”!
About then, Marianne, Hillary and Andy arrived and we suited up for Round Two of the main event. The chicks seemed to be more comfortable with us but we still had a ways to go. This was clearly going to take some time… and patience. Lots of patience! But it was great fun just watching the chicks. They had such different personalities! One would think I would have had lots of time to just watch the birds during my years on the UL Project. But my time around the birds was mostly during training or while busy doing chores. In fact, the only time we really had to just hang out with them was when we were “hiding them” while the training runways were being mowed or during migration when we would skip a stop and have to hide them while the pen was being set up. This morning was pure pleasure!
Marianne began the introductions. “Each year we name our birds based on a theme. Last year it was lakes in Wisconsin. So this one here is Corky. He’s the big male. He always picks on little Druid. That one is Flambo who is pretty easy going. Then there’s Mendota, the sometimes cranky female who also picks on Druid. And that independent one over there is Druid, the small female.” It has always amazed me at how important a name is to the connection process. I learned this long ago when I first started working with swans. However, it has never been OM’s policy to name the birds. That’s why I have always secretly done it. Not to name the birds was a luxury I could never afford and it always made me laugh at the end of each season when other members of the crew would admit to naming them also. These four names provided me with the short cut I needed to quicken the process of connection. As Mother Teresa used to say, the better you know your opponents, the better your chances of winning. “Looks like Corky and Mendota are going to make it hard to get Druid in the pen,” I whispered to Marianne. “You got it,” she answered.
After a while, we observed that the birds were becoming bored with us… or with me, at least. The novelty of our presence was wearing off as they wandered away to explore other areas of the property. We decided our best course of action was to build their trust and enthusiasm by hitting the ON/OFF switch of our visits throughout the day in the hope that each visit would bring us closer to winning their confidence and springing the trap.
“Remember the last time we had to catch a bird?” Marianne asked on the way back to the road. “I sure do.” I replied. It was on a very stormy night in 2007 when we caught whooper 5-01 at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Now, one might think that catching a bird in a zoo is as easy as catching a criminal in a prison, but things are not always as they seem. Our little avian version of “Romeo and Juliet” was a bit more complicated. You see, whooper 5-01 had lost his mate to predation and one day just happened to be flying over the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park when he looked down and saw the whoopette of his dreams, Peepers. Peepers was a zoo resident in the process of being introduced to a new suiter from Patuxent, Rocky. Rocky had experienced a throat injury earlier in life and could not vocalize, which stunted his appeal. 5-01 had no such affliction. It was love at first flight.
What followed was the story of a bird willingly giving up his freedom for love. He flew into the zoo four times over a period or two, or was it three years. And each time he was captured and forcibly relocated, only to return later. What Hollywood or Disney could have done with this story! Kind of makes you want to reach for the Pepto-Bismol instead of the popcorn.
Anyway, the story ended happily. 5-01 was finally permitted to stay in the zoo with Peepers. He was even given a name… Levi. Poor Rocky was shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington where he was scheduled to begin filming the sequel, “Rocky 2”. He was, in fact, last observed wooing a Panda bear, which prompted one of the zookeepers to inquire, “When do we start construction on that “WhooPan Exhibit”?” At least we know he wasn’t going to be singing the National Anthem.
Then, just as we reached the road, Marianne’s phone rang. She frowned, staring hard at the phone. “It’s about the Capture Permit. Keep your fingers crossed.” “Hello”? she answered.
…to be continued.