They’re Here! Whooping Crane Socialization

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.”

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  1. Russell Allison February 21, 2016 9:23 am

    I don’t know which I will miss most seeing the Whoopers flying or your reports. Oh well, I guess it would be the Whoopers. I just can’t believe it is all over. I hope to hear many more reports from you my friend.

  2. Carol Phillips February 21, 2016 8:54 am

    So blessed to have these two taking care of our cranes here at St. Marks. Thank you both for all you do!!

  3. PattiLat February 18, 2016 6:09 pm

    Oh, how we appreciate these accounts of the continuing progress of our 2015 colts and their adventures with their elders. Fascinating! Thank you very much!

  4. Dorothy N February 18, 2016 9:38 am

    What a great tale of a day with the St Marks whoopers — old and new. One question — how do you keep all of the individual birds’ movements straight while you are watching?? Writing it down as it happens? Filming it for replay? Mapping each bird’s movements?? I’m so glad the day ended well and all were safe and sound! Thank you for a very fun read!!

  5. Warrenwesternpa February 18, 2016 8:03 am

    Their Here! Whoopin Crane Socialization Brooke Pennypacker

    Great reading once again! It feels so good, knowing nature works the natural process in the animal kingdom. The instincts built into those bird minds excels all, yet we can comprehend. Superb job once again Operation Migration. We have all learned so much about humanity and nature!

  6. Nancy Roe Pimm February 18, 2016 7:53 am

    Thanks for sharing. I love to hear about these amazing birds. Keep up the great work!

  7. Richard P. Chase February 17, 2016 7:44 pm

    Man, I know that these reports are tugging at Colleen’s heart! Here she is in California visiting with our daughter – wanting so much to be there AND be in St. Marks with the other part of her family. Real life is tough. 😉

  8. Mollie Cook February 17, 2016 1:13 pm

    What a delightful read………thank you Brooke & Bev!!! We’ll stay tuned………..

  9. Leota Hopper February 17, 2016 12:51 pm

    Thank you Brooke for keeping us posted of the day time Soap’s, of the colts and how they are adjusting and with the others. You guys keep us posted and close to the Whooping Cranes. Enjoy the reading and looking forward on the life events of the Whooping Cranes. Keep up the good work everyone!!!

  10. Mindy February 17, 2016 12:43 pm

    What a wonderful report Brooke, for you and for the birds….Thank you. Hope the trend continues..

  11. Reta February 17, 2016 11:41 am

    Amazing writing Brooke, I really do have a visual picture when I read you and Joe’s reports. Thank you.


  12. Kay Huey February 17, 2016 11:33 am

    Oh Brooke, thank you for letting us view this important day through your eyes. You showed me, once again, that the whoopers are not simply a mish-mash of numbers but living, vibrant beings with quite individual personalities. I was ever so thrilled to see that, while each one took this new step in his or her own stride, both young and old remembered what they had been taught by Operation Migration: it’s good to roost on an oyster bed surrounded by water and it’s equally good to roost with pals — someone is sure to sound the alert if danger splashes through the ponds. . . . A profound thank you to all of you.

  13. anna osborn February 17, 2016 11:04 am

    I hang on to every single word. Thanks for sharing this great adventure.

  14. Diana Hanson February 17, 2016 9:28 am

    Thank you Brooke — always delightful reading your reports. Looking forward to the next!

  15. ffmn February 17, 2016 8:58 am

    Ahhh Mr. Brooke. You must have a pen flashlight and notebook to record all the happenings of the day,evening. How else could you remember all the details.? Don’t recall reading much of this type of interaction last year at the pen, so was totally fascinating to read.! Not much difference in being accepted in the human being world, is there? Thanks for sharing your ‘diary’ with us. Appreciated.

  16. Kat Williams February 17, 2016 8:50 am

    Thanks, Brooke, for allowing me to “see” this from the blind with you and Bev. Hopefully today will bring even more successful steps for these youngsters.

  17. Kathy Moore February 17, 2016 8:39 am

    Fantastic! Thanks for the interesting account. It’s so nice to have a happy story to read to start off the day.

  18. Shirley Green February 17, 2016 8:18 am

    What a fun hold-your-breath reading. Thank you. Looking forward to the next report.

  19. Carol Craig February 17, 2016 8:06 am

    Thanks Brooke – awesome report! Glad to hear about Peanut too.

  20. Carol Craig February 17, 2016 8:02 am

    Awesome – thanks Brooke! Love the reports & hearing about Peanut! ?

  21. Christine Myers February 17, 2016 8:00 am

    Amazing report! Thanks for sharing, I could really sense the suspense!

  22. Marje lloyd February 17, 2016 7:57 am

    thank you Brooke, good to know all went well, I can picture it your descriptions are wonderful.

  23. Lindi Allen February 17, 2016 7:25 am

    I am so glad all ended well for the night, thanks for the report, it is very interesting to see how they relate to each other.

  24. Elsie Sealander February 17, 2016 7:13 am

    Whew !

  25. Kate Crook February 17, 2016 7:11 am

    Thank you Brooke. Your reports from the pen are fascinating. We love hearing how the young cranes are growing up in Florida…and you do it so well!!!

  26. M-Mercedes Panqueva February 17, 2016 6:59 am

    Listening for the music, miracles and digressions.

  27. Laurine Grant February 17, 2016 6:46 am

    WOW!!!! What a relief for you and Bev. Wish I could be there!!