Watching Them be Wild

I thought when I stopped flying with birds that I would never again feel that attached to an animal. The connection you share wingtip to wingtip at a thousand feet is not a common experience.

Last fall I spent the better part of three months watching another bird, one to which I had no connection at all. We didn’t share the skies or even the marsh. In fact, he was parent reared and scared to death of me or any other person. I couldn’t put on a costume and use a puppet to communicate with him. He didn’t read my body language or size up my place in his social order and in truth, I hardly ever saw him.

Of all the parent-reared birds we released last year, number 30-16 was the only one that was actually adopted. After a tumultuous start, whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14, referred to as the Royal Couple, took him in like he was their own.

When Whooping cranes behave the way nature intended, it is not a spectator sport. This engineered family spend most of their time deep in the White River marsh. They sometimes flew to distance ponds on private property but landed out of sight of roads and houses. Occasionally I could see the tops of their heads through binoculars but mostly I listened to the steady beep coming from the leg-mounted transmitters. If I found that beep before sunrise and knew which of their favorite spots they were using to roost, I could sometimes stand on top of the truck and catch their early morning departure.

Parent Reared whooping crane colt #30-16 flies with alloparents 3-14 and 4-12. Photo: J. Duff

Three perfect birds dressed in Royal White but one with a touch of gold. They flew in formation with the chick in the middle and it seemed like the marsh created the mist only to mute the colors of autumn and highlight their beauty. I became attached without ever knowing that bird personally and I watched them leave the marsh on a cold and snowy day in December as the three headed south for the winter. 

They are back at White River now, maybe a little early. They have been spotted deep in the marsh, the adults close together and the chick a few hundred yards off.

male 30-16 was located approximately 300 yards from cranes 3-14 & 4-12. Photo: D. Pellerin

They likely chased him away now that they are back home. That’s a good sign that they may breed this year and produce their own offspring. They taught 30-16 how to migrate and to be wild, and maybe he taught them how to be good parents. And all three of them taught me to appreciate the simpler things.

Share Button


  1. Warrenwesternpa March 25, 2017 7:09 am

    Watching them be Wild, Joe Duff

    A beautiful perspective Joe! Each time I read your thoughts, I gain a new appreciation of the world around us. Something, we all to often take for granted. Like it will always be there. We can build as easy as destroy! Thank you Sir!

  2. Peter Smith March 24, 2017 9:25 pm

    You are a great friend of these incredible cranes, Joe. Thank you for sharing your precious perspective with us. With all the other chaos and violence in the world, our view (through OM) of these incredible whooping cranes is pure pleasure.

  3. Cheryl Murphy March 24, 2017 7:07 pm

    Really touching, Joe. Thank you for sharing. We too are glad all three are safe and back in the marsh.

  4. Susanne March 24, 2017 6:15 pm

    This made me tear up. You are one special guy and you’ve had one special life so far it seems.

  5. Christy March 24, 2017 3:03 pm

    Thank you, Joe!

  6. Mindy March 24, 2017 12:16 pm

    Wonderful post Joe. No matter what creature we are observing, we always learn from them. I have learned so many good lessons over the years from animals, some I knew very well and some I knew only as I rescued them and was in their presence just a short time but the valuable insights they provided to me stayed as a part of myself. A better part of myself, listening to hear what is not audible to people who do not make critters a part of their everyday living, even if all they have to observe is a hill of ants. They all offer us a special part of life if you just see it. You had a special priviledge to fly next to these magnificent birds…an honor. They learned so much even though you wore a costume and had no feathers. Can’t wait to see the next chapter…Blessings on all you do and the whole OM team. You care enough to hear what cannot be heard with ears….

  7. Sue McCurdy March 24, 2017 11:07 am

    What a lovely story. I’m so glad you are finding pleasure in the cranes, even though you’re not aircraft guiding then anymore. Also you must be very proud of your interaction with them.

  8. Agneta Sand March 24, 2017 10:47 am

    Love it ! ! !

  9. Mollie Cook March 24, 2017 10:38 am

    Joe, your thoughts & observations are so touching……maybe a few tears in my coffee this morning. But they are tears of joy……….so wonderful to see 30-16 back at the marsh & to have learned so much from his alloparents, who learned to fly & migrate from you & the OM team. And apparently to be good parents. Job well done!

  10. Marilyn Wanser March 24, 2017 10:15 am

    Joe – I so a ppreciate your description. I can feel what you feel. Thank you for all you do.

  11. Dora Giles March 24, 2017 10:01 am

    Thank you Joe. I know you miss the flying wingtip to wingtip with them and maybe this year might get to do it again. It was always a thrill to behold when one of the chicklets suddenly caught the lift and started flying. I know your heart would nearly jump out of your chest with joy to see that event. I envy you in a good way. Again thanks for all you do.


  12. Carol Santos March 24, 2017 10:01 am

    Happy you are enjoying the fruits of your labor. Thank you for your work to bring back these majestic birds!