Guest Author: Linda Boyd
There was a newbie in the pen this week. No, not a new crane. All our cranes are veterans of the pen by now. I’m not talking about a bird. I’m talking about a Boyd. That would be me, Linda Boyd. David, my husband, and I have been volunteers on the migration for five years.
My husband has earned his crane costume, but I have always been involved in non-crane migration activities involving people, vehicles, and just about anything else that doesn’t directly involve the cranes. It seemed that after all this time, I should find out what all the migration fuss was about–you know, the reason we are doing this. So when Brooke invited me to go to the pen with him, I jumped at the chance and into my boots. Right here you should note that the protocol for visiting the cranes is strict — not even all the members of the migration team can visit them!
The morning of my visit dawned cold which is pretty much the story of this migration where fresh, gray, and black water tanks in our RVs have frozen on a regular basis–but I digress. Back to the pristine, cold dawn. As Brooke and I went down the hill, around the bend, and over the covered bridge, (really, I’m not making up the covered bridge part), a broad flat valley flanked by steep walls came into view—all of it pure white. Not snow, but last night’s heavy frost had turned Tennessee into a winter wonderland. Everything was white, including Brooke and me. It seemed an appropriate setting for a journey to visit these birds who are rapidly losing their brown coloring and taking on the pure white plumage of adult Whoopers.
As we rounded the bend, the pen came into view. Against the white floor and walls of the valley, the pen looked like it was floating—a space ship in a white void or a jellyfish in a colorless sea. It looked beautiful with it’s delicate round shape and thin membrane of fencing. But enough of this waxing eloquent. My goals for this visit were three–do not talk, do not touch the electric fence, and do not step on a crane foot. Sounds easy, but one of the realities of the crane suit is that you fog up your mylar viewing panel pretty quickly. My attempts at slow shallow breathing were failing to relieve this situation. However, with Brooke’s help, I did manage to clear the electric fence just fine. He disengaged the second one and we were into the pen.
On this cold morning, the birds were wide awake and up for anything. I quickly became the “anything,” I discovered that if I looked through the breathing mesh under the mylar panel, I could see pretty well and what I saw were two startling eyes staring at mine with a serious eight or nine inch beak in between us. I snapped the mylar screen down over my eyes just before that beak delivered the first of several blows. Hello #4, glad to meet you.
By this time #5 was getting in his welcome pokes too. Meanwhile a gentler hello was being delivered by a crane who was playing woodpecker, bent on discovering insect nests in my boot toes. Others also came over to greet me by tugging at my costume, poking at my costume, and exploring the possibilities of taking me out from behind. Brooke, in the meantime, was in caretaker mode, checking out the birds, especially #3–the bad boy dropout of the flight here, checking on the food supplies in the dishes, and breaking up the ice in the water bowls. For all of you readers who are worried about these young birds being warm enough out here in the cold weather, let me just say this… the first thing they did after Brooke broke up the ice in their water bowls was stand in them! Those that couldn’t get into the bowls dove for pieces of floating ice tossing them in the air, sloshing them in the water with their beaks, breaking them up, and eating them. The ice was the new toy in the pen, replacing the former new toy—me.
All this time these big birds, (they are, after all, tall enough to look at me eyeball to eyeball), are chattering away with their tiny peeping voices which seem more appropriate for baby chickens. Soon their food and water had been replenished, all birds had been checked out, and it was time to leave. We exited the pen, reengaged the electric fence, stepped over the outer electric fence, and walked silently away. I glanced back to see them all looking at us, and then when I glanced back again, they were going about their business, They didn’t miss us. They knew we’d be back. We walked away in silence and my thoughts went from the particulars of what I had just experienced in the pen with these lively birds to the wider thought of how priceless these young birds are. Now I knew what all the fuss was about. We are doing vital work here. This endeavor along with all the other Whooping Crane restoration endeavors is terribly, terribly important. I have always been proud to be a part of Operation Migration and I have always known that it may be one of the most significant things I do on this earth, but now I know it even more deeply.