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.
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.
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.