While most of the team is away for Christmas volunteer crane handlers, Gordon Perkinson and Christine Barnes, have been helping me with the day-to-day care of the Class of 2011. As a result, what I had only suspected before is now clear to me; the dynamics and behavior of the cranes in our cohort changes based on who is in the pen. It appears the birds can somehow distinguish one costume from another.

My first introduction to changing group dynamics occurred in La Salle County, Illinois when discussing our dominant birds with Brooke. Brooke was adamant about 10-11 being a tough, dominant bird as he had observed that crane pecking and bullying other birds. I staunchly took the opposite view. The 10-11 that I knew was quite a shy bird who was badgered and beat by #5 and #7. We never came to an agreement.

“Do the birds act differently when different costumes are in the pen?” I later asked Richard. “Yeah,” was all he responded.

Back in Livingston County, Illinois I really picked up on behavior change when Walter Sturgeon entered the pen with a clean costume and a freshly refurbished puppet. The birds, particularly #1, went nuts. #1 was frantically trying to establish dominance over this new puppet head. He flapped, rasped, and pecked relentlessly at the ‘new bird’, and by the time Walter and I were leaving the pen, #1 had aged his new puppet significantly.

It was strange to me, because although #1 was certainly a dominant bird, I had never experienced him trying to pull rank on me. Sure, I had been on the receiving end of a few crown displays, but other than that, nothing more forceful than some strong pecks at my puppet’s beak. This is when it became clear to me that when I’m in the pen, I become the dominant one.

Throughout the past week I have seen Gordon and Christine deal with several dominance interactions and it seems Christine receives the worst of it. Numbers 1, 6, and 10 have been the leaders of the offensives on the new costumes. The first few times the ‘new costumes’ entered the pen, those three birds were determined to establish their sovereignty and the three cranes tried desperately to beat the unfamiliar puppet heads into submission.

They have since calmed down and become accustomed to their interim surrogate parents. I expected the aggression from numbers 1 and 7, but never thought # 6 and #10 would react so strongly. 10-11 even jump-raked the newcomers, something I had never seen a colt do to a costume. The cohort constantly surprises me, and I never quite know what to expect next.

Some of our regular readers might be a little perplexed about my assumption of #7 being an aggressor. While at White River Marsh I never commented or observed a strong personality from this bird. Geoff though, was observant enough to catch her youthful dominance. He noted early on that she wasn’t afraid of going after #1 if he bothered her too much. It wasn’t until we were on migration however, that I first observed her start to take a leading role in the cohort.

At the start of migration when I thought of dominant birds, it was #1 and #5 that came to mind. While #1 has retained his top of the heap position, it seems #5 has dropped down in the pecking order, or at least has backed off. He no longer rushes us when we enter the pen, and seems to not fight for grapes with the same vigor he used to. Numbers 6 and 7 have either filled that void, or pushed him aside as they now seem to have taken on dominant roles within the cohort. I would even go so far as to say #7 is the most aggressive bird. She certainly isn’t afraid of any other bird in the pen and seems to regularly chase other birds around and jump-rake at them.

This leads to another reflection. The birds obviously react differently to different costumes, and seemingly must be able to differentiate between them. It also is plain that the dynamics of the group from within changes as time passes. Much like in high school when popularity rises and falls, the cranes’ pecking order shuffles and re-aligns from time to time.

Once upon a time at Patuxent, 12-11 was a tough little girl. 1-11 was top dog, and 9-11 liked the costumes. As time progressed at White River Marsh #1 retained his chief position, #12 became one of our shyest birds, and #9 developed an attitude of indifference and disregard for the costumes. During the summer #5 surged to the top of the cohort and was lost in a grape-desiring frenzy for a few months.

As time has gone on, #5 has calmed down, fading somewhat into the background. Numbers 6 and 7 have taken a liking to their newfound tough-guy roles. #9 has began to warm up to the costumes as she will follow me around the pen sometimes, and come up to peck gently if I crouch down.

There is no doubt in my mind the group dynamics change over time. I am grateful and count myself extremely lucky to have the opportunity to observe such intriguing interactions between these fascinating creatures.

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