The fated day is just around the corner! All that’s left to do is put the flock together in one big ponded pen and see how they get along together. But how are they doing on that front?

When we tried socializing the birds last Saturday, things got off to a rocky start. An adult bird was moved in a pen next to the pond pen where our birds were socializing. He was supposed to keep the chicks calm, give a sense of security that a big brother was keeping them company. Unfortunately, that adult didn’t get that memo. He must not have been adjusting very well to his new pen or his new surroundings, as he was alarm calling every other minute. It’s not uncommon to hear an alarm call ring out from some corner of Patuxent. The causes range from Patuxent staff entering their pens to switch eggs, to a heron flying too close to their pen. But whatever the cause is, they usually stop after a few minutes. This guy however, was set on loop mode.

Naturally, this put the jitters in most, if not all the chicks we were bringing out. Most of them were too scared to even follow us to the pond pen, since that’s where the cries were coming from. They mostly hung out under a tree foraging for worms, frozen in place, or would follow us for a little bit before turning back. Ultimately, it took the combined efforts of myself, Caleb (who had a free Saturday to volunteer), and one or two Patuxent staff who brought smelt they could use to bribe the chicks. Even then, we could only lead them one or two at a time. Normally, Brooke can get all of the birds over to the pond pen after training by himself.

But with enough perseverance and smelt, we got all six of the birds to the pond pen. But the alarm calls still didn’t stop. Not even the prospect of frolicking through swamp water or snacking on defenseless tadpoles brightened the chicks’ mood. Some of the older birds, like 5-12 and 6-12 tried to carry on like they normally would; foraging or occasionally ducking into the pond but they still seemed a bit on edge, even after an hour in the pen. 11-12 was clearly on pins and needles, as she was constantly pacing towards the adult bird, trying to climb the fence to get out. Caleb and I tried leading all the birds into the pond, or walking around the pen, just give them something to take their mind off the wailing adult but it never kept them occupied for long. After an hour or so, all of us agreed enough was enough and opted to return the adult back to his normal pen.

Once the adult was gone, it was like a switch was flipped. There wasn’t a single bird who hesitated getting in that pond for a merry little dip. No longer did we have to lead birds around the pen. Even 11-12, who’s widely considered to be our jumpiest bird in the flock got her feathers wet and snacked on a tadpole or two dozen. For the remainder of the day, being in the pen became a do-nothing job.

As a cohort, these birds have gelled together beautifully. All the birds are pretty mellow towards each other and aren’t really that aggressive. A couple times, Brian and I have noticed three or four chicks happily sitting next to each other, either under the plastic decoy, or a costume we leave hanging off the fence. The only bird who comes close to having a mean streak is 5-12, who’s on top of the totem pole. He’s not afraid to remind the other birds who is boss with an occasional peck or two. He doesn’t seem to like 10-12 too much, as he pecks her the most but with that said, he’s not chasing other the birds or going American History X on them.

He’s often one of the three or four birds who congregate by the costume. He’s mostly just reminding the other birds that he is the top dog and/or they just happen to be in his way.

Now a few days ago, I was worried if these fellas could learn to take care of themselves without daddy being in the pen with them. The first day we tried leaving them in the pen by themselves, Brooke, Sharon and I huddled in the video shed and watched on camera as they casually foraged around in the gentle rain, digging up hapless earthworms by the barrelful. We thought they were ready to take care of themselves. But the next day we tried leaving them by themselves, 11-12 was pacing by the gate, hoping a costume would come by and keep her company. The other birds were doing okay, though 4-12 was getting a little antsy, I think mostly because 11-12 was. A day or two after that, I occasionally tried to leave the pen, and watch them from the video shed. The cameras would tell the same story each time; five or six birds gathered up by the gate, pacing back and forth, wondering where their favorite exotic plant killing, zombie murdering costume had vanished to.

So instead of leaving the pen altogether, we all just hid in the feed shed whenever we were watching the birds, occasionally popping out to see how the birds were doing. The first couple of times I tried this, I would come out and see all six of the birds taking positions outside the feed shed, like enemy soldiers, surrounding my position and awaiting my surrender. At the front of the line would be #11-12, who would run over toward me and crawl in the shed with me. There, she’d peck at the pull string at the base of my costume, or lay down next to me.

Whooping crane 11-12

Whooping crane 11-12

But on this day, instead of awaiting my surrender, I saw most of the birds off doing their own thing. Some were off in the pond, taking a dip. Others were in the shade shelter, eating from the feeders. This is also when Brian and I would see three or four chicklets laying down by the hanging costume, as if to say, ‘Fine! If you’re too cool for us, we’ll hang out with this guy instead!’ Number 11-12, being the little sister she is, would still run over to me if she saw me.

Feeling a little bolder, I snuck off into the video shed, eager to see how much they were really growing up. By the time I got there, Caleb had gone into the pen to take my place. But when I caught up with him later, he said the birds were doing fine after I snuck out, almost as if I had never left. That Sunday, on father’s Day, Brian shot me an occasional text, letting me know how the kids were behaving. According to him, he was watching them in the video shed, and they were hanging out like they always do. It seems like the class of 2012 is finally starting to grow up.

I have mixed feeling with how they’re going to do once they arrive in White River. On one hand, I’m worried we’ll get a repeat of last year’s flock. But on the other hand, they did not bond together as well as this flock is doing right now. I suspect it has something to do with the cohort sizes. Normally, cohorts of four to six socialize and mix together better than cohorts of eight or nine. Or the ten we had last year. A lot simpler with fewer personalities to sort out when you’re dealing with a cohort of six. Perhaps the 2011 flock could’ve done better if we had broken them into two cohorts of five, or four and six. But at this point, I’m just Monday morning quarterbacking. In the end, despite all hurdles and hardships, the 2011 Class turned out alright so there isn’t any reason why this cohort shouldn’t as well.

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