Hail to the Mealworm!

If Teddy Roosevelt had been a crane wrangler instead of a Rough Rider and later President of the United States, he would have modified his famous philosophy of foreign policy with the statement, “Walk softly and carry a big worm”… mealworm, that is because there’s just nothing in this big bad world that compares with the magical persuasive power of a mealworm when you want to coax a crane chick into doing something unnatural like following the trike.  The very word, mealworm, is Latin for “Crane Candy” and if you don’t believe me, just ask a fish.  An Italian fish….like an anchovy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Chick training or conditioning is a simple matter of overlaying our blueprint over the chick’s genetic one.  Like following. Following is part of their genetic code and without it, I wouldn’t be writing this update because the only cranes in this world would be the ones that pick up stuff at construction sites. So coercing a chick to follow a puppet head that looks like a second rate version of their parents is no biggie. After all, even the latch key kids of working parents grow up and move out. But coaxing that chick to follow an ultralight that’s as noisy as an erupting volcano round and round a circle pen? That’s another story.

Think about it.  Imagine for a moment that you wake up one morning and find yourself abducted by giant aliens… Creatures as tall as a 9 story building, who communicate by telepathy and with bodies so hideously ugly they have to cover themselves with white hooded smocks. Their feet are clad with rubber boots so big you have to stand on your tippy toes just to see over their big toe.  After the usual alien introductions, “Don’t bother taking me to your leader because we know you haven’t got one,” they herd you over to their yellow space ship; a sky scrapper tall fan-like affair covered by a lame attempt at a bird’s wing that they sit in like they’re holding court of something. They have to start the engine by pulling on a long rope because they’re too cheap to put an electric starter on it and because, as everyone knows, there aren’t any batteries in outer space. The sound of the engine is like nothing you’ve ever heard before… worse than a bazillion loud peeps.  So piercingly loud, in fact, that it knocks you right off your feet and sends you scrambling in panic for the exits.

“Don’t be afraid, little earth man”, they mentally call down with that irritatingly condescending tone most aliens have. “Just follow (they don’t even let you ride in the thing) the big noisy space ship round and round in a circle to nowhere and pretend the force is with you,” to which you naturally reply, as any normal self respecting earthling would, “What’s in it for me?”

And here’s where the mealworm thing comes into it.  “Why, a nice big fat juicy mealworm”, comes the answer. ”In fact, a whole pile of the little beggers.  Just put a few of those little wigglies between your gum and lip and before you can scream “Alarm Call” you’re on your way to Crane Nirvana. Try it. You’ll like it.” And all the while you’re thinking, “Careful.  Aliens have a bad reputation for making big promises before they start all that probing of your private parts.

It’s not their fault really. They learned it from Madison Avenue. “And now a word from our sponsor.”  It’s called “Shaping Behaviors”, otherwise known as American Economics 101. Supply and demand.  They create the demand, then provide the supply.  “And if you order now you get the Ginsu knives, the Box Car Willie Christmas Album and the Pocket Fisherman, guaranteed to put a smile on your face whether you catch a fish or not.”   Sad, really, but then that’s just the way aliens think.  They can’t help it. It’s in their DNA.

Now, as torturous as all this sounds….the noise verses worms routine I mean, at least it beats water boarding, which is a good thing for us because ever since the President threatened to outlaw water boarding at Quantanimo Bay, the American public has been buying them all up in a panic and hording them, afraid they won’t be able to get one in the future.  As a result, there is not a single surf board to be had anywhere. And no old Beach Boys records either.  Even Walmart is out.  After all, it is our Constitutional Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of the Perfect Wave.  Our Founding Fathers weren’t a bunch of dummies.  They predicted Global Warming and knew that it wouldn’t be too many centuries before perfect sets of waves would be rolling into down town Philadelphia.  And who can blame the average American for being so concerned about his or her rights and the threat of more government intrusion.  One doesn’t require too many brain cells to spark all at once to imagine what the government background check would be like. Questions like, “Have you ever yelled, “Surf’s Up” in a crowded movie theater“?  or “Have you ever seen the movie “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and later entertained improper thoughts  of “Hanging Ten” with Annette?”  Nope….we’ll stick with mealworms and darn lucky to have ‘em.

So here’s how it works.  I stand next to the trike outside the circle pen while Geoff sits with the chick inside the pen just opposite the trike.  He dispenses mealworms to the chick who we have previously addicted to them.  As the chick gobbles them down like there’s no tomorrow, I start the engine which puts a capitol S in the word Startle and causes the chick to leap into next week.  I immediately shut off the engine.  Geoff uses a puppet head to  coax the little guy back for more worms and as he begins to gorge himself again I pull start the engine and again, up he jumps… only this time not as high and I again shut the engine off.

This process is repeated over and over until the chick no longer minds the loud noise, even with the engine revving.  Then it’s time for Geoff to leave and for me to start driving the trike around the circle pen while the chick follows the four foot long puppet head I’m hanging over the two foot high fence that separates us. It also helps that we have billboards just outside the circle showing an adult whooper standing under a mealworm laden palm tree on a beach in Florida saying, “Come On Down”.  Nature never ceases to amaze us.


Of course, every now and then you get a chick that displays no reaction at all to the sound of the engine and just stares back up at you in defiance, with that expression of “Bring it on!”  This phenomenon first occurred a few years ago with a chick we nicknamed “Cosmo” after the manufacturer of the trike.  No matter how loud we revved the engine, he paid no attention.  He just ate worms.  We naturally suspected he was deaf and consulted a world famous specialist in the field of whooper audiology.  After much research and study on the matter, he came up with a test protocol worthy of a Nobel Prize nomination which we put immediately to the test.  It involved placing the chick in a quiet pen, yelling “Mealworms!” at the top of our lungs to which the chick’s head spun round in an exorcism- like 360 while he peeped, “Where?”  The chick’s hearing was pronounced, “A-OK”.

So now you know our secret. Not exactly an episode of “How Do They Do That?” but close.  And though the process may be as implausible as a certain famous Las Vegas illusionist doing a commercial for cat food, it works and so we repeat it over and over again until all the chicks are happily following the trike, first around the circle pen, then down the straightaway of the half moon field, then eventually down the runway at White River Marsh and up ever higher into that sweet beyond.  And all because of a little ol’ mealworm.  Who would have thunk it!

To paraphrase the ending of John Magee’s great poem, “High Flight”,

“…..And while with silent , lifting mind I’ve trod the high untresspassed sanctity of space,  put out my hand and touched the face…of a mealworm.”

Whooping crane chick with aircraft

After only a couple of lessons chicks are quite comfortable with the aircraft

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  1. Margie Tomlinson June 7, 2013 8:23 am

    What can I say? Another great, humorous report from Brooke! 🙂
    Thanks so much “Crane Daddy”!

  2. Luella Duncan Frank June 6, 2013 10:48 pm

    This is absolutely the most fascinating read for me! It is amazing to me how you get these little chicks ready for their amazing journeys. How much goes into their lives is so wonderful! Maybe a permanent journal for all-times?

  3. Kathi June 6, 2013 6:09 am

    thank you for giving more info I did not know-you guys are just too wonderful for doing this….

  4. Claire DeLand June 5, 2013 10:50 pm

    What a fabulously talented- – – no, MULTI-talented – – – bunch of wonderful folks OM has to work with the chicks. I can’t even imagine writing something like this, and I am something of a writer!!! This is amazing beyond words. I feel like I’ve been right there watching!!!

    I never fail to learn something from the Field Journal and this entry is no exception. Thank you SO much, Brooke – – – and, on other days, each one of you who works with these “children” and “cares for them” and then comes to tell all of US about their “day at the office”.

    You are much loved and greatly appreciated!!!!

  5. Kathleen Kaska June 5, 2013 7:48 pm

    Enjoyed your mealworm story, Brooke. I used to raise mealworms when I taught seventh-grade science. I used them for a long-term study on complete insect metamorphosis. They had a similar effect on my students; they loved taking handfuls of the wiggly things, counting them, measuring them, and removing the discarded skins from their habitats. They weren’t into eating them, though, at least I don’t think they were, but with seventh-graders, I could never be sure.


  6. Joey Urey-Kramer June 5, 2013 6:14 pm

    Wonderful writing and insight to training. What better way to keep us absorbed in the “day to day” events (tongue in cheek). Keep ‘en comin….

  7. ray charles garter June 5, 2013 8:37 am

    I never believed DV’sss claim that ssshe had been abducted by aliensss until now. What Brooke desscribesss iz exactly what happened to DV. Thank you Brooke, I will never doubt her again.

  8. Janice June 5, 2013 8:34 am

    Great read, Brooke. Thank you for the insight into training. Myself, there is something about the feel of mealworms that makes my skin crawl. But the birds love them!!

  9. Shelly Taliaferro June 5, 2013 8:26 am

    Love Brooke’s FJ entries! Thanks for keeping us informed about the chicklets, Brooke!

  10. eugenia June 5, 2013 7:49 am

    As I read this, I was trying to figure who wrote it — Brooke or Joe. And I was right — Brooke! Most entertaining and doubly so at 7:30 in the morning.

    Seriously, you guys work so hard. Many, many thanks!

  11. Lori (loriearn) June 5, 2013 7:14 am

    What a great way to start the year out!! Mealworms and aliens!!! Its like the beginning of a sci-fi OM trilogy!!! Such an inventive fun way to get the season started!! Thanks Brooke!!! Keep these FJ’s comin!!! WHOOP!!!

  12. Ruth Mitchell June 5, 2013 6:51 am

    OH my goodness…I am glad I didn’t read this while my husband was still asleep because he would have had a rude awakening as I giggled at Brooke’s wonderful descriptions!!! What a skilled writer you are Brooke…please put me down for your book that I KNOW is in the offing!!!
    Thank you for this peek into the world of our wonderful little whoopers, we can’t wait to get them on camera so we can fall in love all over again!!

  13. chasspaddler June 5, 2013 6:15 am

    Seriously worried about Brooke….has he been smoking mealworms?

    • Gerald June 5, 2013 8:55 am

      Chass, he quit smoking them years ago–strictly a mainliner now.

    • Warrenwesternpa June 5, 2013 5:16 pm

      Chass…so funny, your Pa. Roots are showing! 🙂