…. or not. We’re not passing out cigars or rushing off to buy the blue baby room paint just yet. Determining the sex of an adult whooping crane can get, well… complicated. And so, as I stand perched up in my favorite tree gazing out over the marsh observing cranes 28-05 and 2-15 and their first nest together, I think about such things. Especially considering that both birds are supposed to be females. What to do? “Will the real male please stand up”?
Now, many of you may remember our little 2-15. She was always the one dancing to a different drummer, first at Patuxent and later on migration. She spent most of last season down in Walworth County, WI in the company of a large group of sandhill cranes. It was interesting to note that two other young whoopers were nearby; a Parent Reared crane and a Direct Autumn Release bird but each also preferred the company of Sandhills to other Whoopers. In fact, one of the birds was the famous “Kevin,” or number 20-15, the parent reared bird that had to be recaptured in the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in downtown Dubuque, Iowa shortly after his initial release. He was re-released in Wisconsin only to migrate to Louisiana, a trip he repeated this past winter. His interest in fast food seems to have been a one-time fascination.
2-15 returned to St Marks this winter, the only bird from the Class of 2015 to do so. She later migrated north and turned up back in Walworth County with 28-05 before continuing north to 28-05’s territory in Marathon County. That’s where Bev first spotted her on the nest.
28-05 has spent most of her 12 years in Marathon County; usually with sandhill cranes. “The locals call her Millie,” the refuge manager told me. Since there have never been any other whoopers hanging out in the immediate area, we just assumed she went over to the “Dark Side” like 16 and 18-11 did over at Horicon Marsh. Last year Bev observed her standing next to a nest with an egg in it. That prompted a discussion by the WCEP Monitoring and Management Team regarding the prospects of a capture and “reorientation,” similar to that of 16-11. However, capturing her was considered problematic at best and the idea was put on the back burner. What a difference a year makes. But could 28-05 really be a male after all?
While there are a number of ways to differentiate a whooper male from female: size, tone of voice, body language, size of bank account, etc., there is one fool proof, genuine sure fired test: get the birds to unison call. What is a unison call? Well, it’s basically the whooper equivalent of the 60’s Sonny and Cher Hit “I Got You, Babe.” The male initiates the call and the females joins in milliseconds later. If you record the calls, then slow them down digitally to quarter speed, you will hear the female demanding “I want. I want” and the male replying “Why me? Why me?” Very simple. “Just play the unison call and they’ll start calling up a storm,” I was told. “Then you’ll know for sure.”
To this end, I downloaded the unison call from my “Liberace’s Greatest Hits” album onto my trusty digital voice recorder… the one that yells at me to “Get off the Beach” every time I try to go for a swim. Then I hooked that up to a couple of small speakers with enough jacks and cords to make Radio Shack consider going back into business. I cameoed up, hiked out and up into the tree I went. As usual, one bird was on the nest while the other foraged nearby. “Patience, Grasshopper.” I pulled out my trusty, jury rigged “Whooper Blaster” and let her rip with the loudest, most raucous unison call Mother Nature had ever heard. And just as predicted, the birds responded with the loudest, most raucous SILENCE imaginable.
I took solace in the fact that although I did not determine their sexes, I did determine that they were both deaf! Back at the drawing board, I reconfigured my sound machine and returned a few days later. However, this time, before I could deploy my heavy artillery, 2-15 flew in to join 28-05 sitting on the nest and they blessed poor old frustrated me with three of the loudest unison calls imaginable. I captured it on video which I later analyzed with aid of the world famous “Duck Program” based on the algorithm, “If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and smells like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Now I can say with complete and 100% UNCERTAINTY that 28-05 is, in fact, a DUDE!
At the risk of being redundant, this is probably a good time to inform our readers that we have yet another same sex nest over in nearby Wood County. Number 15-11, a female that lost her mate 6-11 last year has paired up and nested with another female, 38-08. Initially, nearby male 19-10 was thought to be in the mix but he has been a no-show for a few weeks now.
I’m not sure what to make of any of this but I am sure of one thing: the next time I open a box of Wheaties, I’m going to wear ear protection. Those unison calls are REALLY LOUD!!!
Postscript: DNA testing of egg shell membranes after they are hatched determines captive Whooping crane gender. With chicks popping out in rapid fire, there are many ways that can get mixed up.