It was just like a Junior High School Dance at the gym. The situation at the pen, I mean. Girls on one side, boys on the other, each filled with just enough of that oh so familiar adolescent “Stage Fright” to keep them apart, yet fixed in each other’s innocent but nervous… almost desperate gaze. (Were this scenario to continue worldwide for just one human lifespan, it would solve the core problem of human overpopulation and poor old beaten and bedraggled Mother Earth would have at least a whisper of a chance to heal herself… but I digress.) Except in this case, it was the six crane colts at the south end of the pen, the older four Whooping cranes at the north end. They’d been doing this since the older birds flew in at 11 o’clock.
Bev and I watched from the blind, our hearts in our throats. We knew this was the moment of truth that we had been anticipating for so long. It would serve as a forecast of what the next several weeks would be like. Would there be conflict and aggression between young and old as has occurred in past years? Or would it be peaceful and accommodating as has also happened in other years. Many a night’s sleep has been interrupted by and laid victim to this question and the seemingly endless “what to do if” planning that inevitably follows.
Finally, an inquisitively spirited #6-15 flew across the pond to the older birds for a “meet and greet”, only to be immediately chased away by #4-13. We remembered how #4-13 greeted last year’s chicks the day of their coming out party in a similar, yet more agitated and aggressive manner…. so disturbing, in fact, that we had to intercede to protect the chicks. But #6 is no dummy and she was soon aloft, winging her way back across the pond to join her cohort. The bell rang to end Round One as we sighed with relief.
And so it went for the rest of the day. There was just no love to be felt, but more importantly, no aggression, as long as the two groups remained apart. But that was not proving to be a problem in a pen so large with so many feeders and two ponds. The chicks went about their day of discovery while 5-12, 4-13 and 7-14 looked on from the north feed shed in half interest. Meanwhile, poor not so old Peanut, 4-14, watched the whole drama unfold from his NEW vantage point OUTSIDE the pen, chased out by 5-12. Since the release of the chicks, the old boy will simply no longer tolerate the presence of Peanut in the pen. Too bad, because the four birds seemed to be getting along just fine in and outside the pen up until the release. What a difference a day makes! Clearly 5-12 has learned some moves from his old –friend-come-nemesis, 4-12, whose pen territory he usurped after 4-12 and 3-14 fled to Georgia, presumably after witnessing the demise of 9 and 10-14 by the bobcat. “It’s a jungle out there!”
We spent the rest of the day watching from the blind as the standoff continued and the two little groups settled into segregated pen life. The next big hurdle would come at sundown when both groups would be headed to the oyster bar to roost. Would the chicks even roost out on the oyster bar as we showed them or choose to roost in another not so safe place? Would the older birds go out to roost there also and chase the chicks away as some of the older birds have done in past years? This would be a HUGE problem for us since trying to coax the chicks back into the pen after dark is a difficult proposition at best. And spending the night outside the safety of the hotwired pen is to slumber in enemy territory… the land of bobcats and other things that go bump in the night. Just not an acceptable situation, to say nothing of the challenges it poses to us. And so we waited.
The clock ticked ever louder through the day until the magic roosting time began its approach. With more than two hours of daylight still left, #8-15 sauntered out across the oyster bar to the decoy and began to preen. #11-15 soon followed. These two chicks were always more security minded than the others. A half an hour later, they were joined by #10-15 and twenty minutes later by #2-15, who had shed some of her exuberance since the end of migration. Then, it was #1-15 who gave up watching #6-15 dancing around in a sudden last fit of day end energy and walked out on the bar to join the line of preeners. “Come on!” we silently yelled to #6-15. “Get with the program!” And finally, after the sun had given up at least three quarters of its light, she took a “chill pill,” quietly surrendered and took her place at the end of the line. “Whew!” Bev and I looked at each other and shook our heads in relief. End of Round Two.
As our chicks performed the “Oyster Bar Shuffle” with amazing and delightful precision, the older three birds looked on with interest from their position at the pen’s north feed shelter. Then, 4-13 and 7-14 began their slow but deliberate walk around the pond toward the oyster bar as 5-12 stepped into the pond and began his more direct approach. All we could do was hold our breath and prepare for the worst. 4-13 arrived first and a brief scuffle followed with #6-15 followed only to be quickly extinguished by the almost dark night. Moments later, the two were preening with the chicks as if they were joined at the hip. End of Round Three.
Now for 5-12. He waded across the pond in stealth mode until he arrived on the north side of the decoy. He then turned back to the line of chicks and began preening. “Whew!” times two. Clearly, Mother Nature had called a truce of sorts and the two armies laid down their arms for the night. End of Round Four.
But how about poor Peanut? Well, the little fellow circled the outside of the pen so closely we thought he would wear off the feathers on one side of his body. Finally, as the real dark…. the “I can barely see a thing” dark fell, he suddenly lifted up and flew into the pen, landing almost without notice amongst the now sleeping chicks. Clever little fella. Timing is everything. End of Round Five… and the fight.
The bell clanged repeatedly as everyone was declared a winner… especially us, as we closed up the blind and made our way down the dark path to the truck. The mud sucked at our boots but our steps were too exuberant with quiet celebration to feel it. This project is a series of small victories and not so small defeats. The victories, when they come, are to be savored… at least until the next day’s battle begins. Tomorrow we… the cranes and us… will crawl back into the ring, the bell will sound and it will all begin again. But until then, we will just breathe easy… and enjoy.
“Let the music begin.”