If Only We Were Fluent in Whooping Crane

From grade one until high school my daughter attended all her classes in French. That included mathematics, geography and even art. It’s an option available in many public schools where we live in Ontario and one that I greatly envy.

I wish we could attend ‘Whooper-ese’ emersion classes.  It would probably take a decade or so before we could understand all the subtleties they can convey with a simple call but as it is now, I am as lost communicating with them as Heather is trying to show me, once again, how to access Facebook.

Luckily most of their communications are non verbal and a good part of that language is intuitive. I’m not talking about flippin’ the bird, (excuse the pun) but just the nuances of body language. Cranes can’t smile or frown. They don’t have eyebrows to knit, bottom lips to quiver or chins to thrust forward. Still, they can fume and pout and worry just like us. Our job is to learn what gestures cranes use to substitute for a wink or a shrug and whether their posture is submission or aggressive. More importantly, we must learn how to react appropriately.

During our first or second training session with the class of 2015, two of the White River alumni dropped in to check on the new gals (and guy). The six, newly arrived chicks were dutifully following the aircraft up and down the runway when the two sub-adults silently glided overhead and expertly touched down at the end of the runway.

For the chicks, everything was new. They heard adults calling at Patuxent and were housed next to them but had never seen them fly. We try not to put these encounters into human terms but despite myself, I had visions of naive cadets arriving at flight school and seeing for the first time, the combat veterans all cool and confident with TOP GUN written in their demeanor.

Back to reality… I now had to deal with six chicks, new and nervous and two adults with unknown intentions. In their instinct driven minds, the two could be there to reclaim their natal territory or perhaps they just had fond memories of treats at the end of training. Or maybe the sounds of the engine and the brood call in the morning were just too familiar to ignore and they arrived with no intentions at all – the way I wandered the halls of my high school on the twentieth class reunion. Maybe they too thought the whole place was a lot smaller than they remember.

When 3-14 and 4-12 landed, the chicks and the trike were heading to that end of the runway. We stopped short and turned around while the adults fell into place, walking beside the aircraft. They weren’t strutting or fluffing feathers but some reaction from us was appropriate. If these two birds had dropped in on the territory of their wild parents, they would likely be chased off, especially if new chicks were present.

Female 3-14 & male 4-12 fell into place with the young Whooping cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Female 3-14 (left) & male 4-12 fell into place with the young Whooping cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Our default position is to replicate the experience of a wild crane chick as much as possible, however our ability to do that is limited. Having adults present could provide good role models, or at the very least, sexual imprint models so the chicks identify with Whooping cranes and not people in costumes.

So our reaction to adults that drop in should be a balance between chasing them off for their benefit and allowing them limited access for the good of the chicks. We also have to keep in mind that it is almost impossible for a handler dressed in a costume to chase off an adult that was raised in that environment. No matter how fast we run, they can lope ahead just out of range. Or they can pop into the air and fly back to the runway after they’ve baited you deep into the marsh.

All of our speculation notwithstanding, the message we want to convey with our limited crane repertoire is that this is our territory, not theirs, however they are welcome to visit as long as they play nice.

They ventured a little too close to the aircraft as we were taxiing back to the pen. That demonstrated comfort and familiarity like this was their territory, so I chased them a bit with the trike. Not far and not aggressively but just enough to say that this is no longer your home. You can visit but you don’t live here anymore. It was an odd situation, as if the people who sold you a house dropped in to welcome you to the neighborhood but then helped themselves to the contents of your fridge. A little territorialism was in order.

Once the chicks were safely back in the pen, I walked slowly towards the intruders as they strutted and displayed their red crowns. They dropped a wing to warn me and pretended to preen in fake disinterest. I kept walking but at a slow and steady pace. They slowly turned away and we kept our distance as we moved farther down the runway and further from the pen. I stopped but did not turn my back and kept watching as if to say “keep walking boys” like the cowboy with the white hat in a 1950’s Hollywood western. Eventually, they wandered off into the marsh without declaring their victory with a unison call.

For us it is a great privilege to have encounters like this with wild birds on their terms and speaking their language. Who knows what they interpret but I suspect they think we are oversized, goofy looking Whooping cranes with really bad accents.

Photo: Doug Pellerin

Photo: Doug Pellerin

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  1. Deane Bauman July 13, 2015 8:03 pm

    Maybe they are just trying to help, you said it yourself at the start of this post, we cannot speak until we know the language. On the other hand maybe they just want grapes !

  2. Shepherd July 13, 2015 5:14 pm

    Beautiful photos and a very good article!

  3. Peter Smith July 13, 2015 2:36 pm

    I need to find you a white cowboy hat to wear over your costume, and maybe some jingling spurs attached to your white pointy cowboy boots, for situations just like this.

    Way to go, Marshall Dillon! Them thar birds got to meet the sheriff….

  4. Mindy July 13, 2015 11:35 am

    We are torn between keeping the babies safe and allowing them access in order to teach. As I watched live that first day Joe, I was so in awe because you knew exactly what you should do whether you could exactly read their subtle (or not so subtle) intentions or not. You acted like a parent Whooper would. You found the right balance. Thank you.

  5. Sallly Swanson July 13, 2015 11:26 am

    Thanks Joe! I’m sure 3-14 and 4-12 will behave knowing that those big weird whooper tumes are present!


  6. PattiLat July 13, 2015 9:48 am

    Watching the training has been an exhilarating experience! The arrival of 3-14 & 4-12 was such a surprise to me and filled me with anxiety of what would happen next. I laughed more, (emotional tears, too), during this week than in many a year. As usual, your journal is delightful and informative. Thank you for it and thanks to the OM team, the cam drivers, chatters, etc. What a group! Love you all!

  7. Dorothy N July 13, 2015 9:22 am

    Great writeup!! Both entertaining and educational!! Thank you and the whole team for the terrific work you do!

  8. Reta July 13, 2015 8:54 am

    Joe, interesting and so well written the mental video was exciting.


  9. Patricia Ewing July 13, 2015 8:06 am

    What a fabulous narrative, I watched the cam while holding my breath when the WB’s arrived and then a little later #6 chased one off… <3

  10. Bobbie July 13, 2015 7:52 am

    I really enjoyed your FJ entry today Mr. Duff. It’s always a treat to see graduates return! Now if the TUMES could come up with a Unison Call that would be interesting! Thank you to all of OM for the wonderful work you do.