The Newbie

Forest Gump’s analogy about his box of chocolates could easily be applied to Whooping cranes. You never know what you are going to get. There are a million variations in domestic cats and dogs but species that are more purebred like most wild animals, appear to be duplicates of each other. All Blue jays look pretty much the same and so do Whooping cranes. So it’s easy to think that homogeneity applies to personality as well as to their appearance. Not so.

One of the definitions of an animal is a consistent response to a specific stimulus so we don’t see radical behavior shifts in animals like we do in some of our friends. Number 2-17 isn’t going to show up one day in leather pants and a Ferrari that she can’t afford, just because she turned 45. That special kind of stupid is reserved for humans.

All Whooping cranes behave mostly the same. They all fly, poke around in the mud and sleep standing up in water, but the similarity stops there. Each bird is an individual and if you are lucky enough to wear a costume and willing to stop talking, you get to introduce yourself as one of their own kind.  It is a rare opportunity to meet a Whooping crane in person. I don’t mean a chance encounter on a wetland trail or the close-up view you get through a spotting scope. I mean to be part of their cohort, to forage in the mud and learn that number 7-17 likes her grapes split open and easier to swallow. Despite their monomorphic appearance, each one with the same shape and color, they can recognize each other, just as they can distinguish between our similar, but distinctive costumes. I was only here for a day or two when they first arrived a month ago, so when I showed back up on Wednesday, I was a new guy and not necessarily welcome.

Being the newbie usually isn’t so bad. The most dominant bird will generally confront you once or twice to see where you fit into their social structure but the 2017 cohort is a tough crowd. The only two that didn’t pick a fight with me yesterday were six and seven and even they were sizing me up. Interaction with dominant birds is a lot like jousting in the corridors of high school; it starts with a lot of squaring off and posturing. These birds are too young to have developed a red patch on the top of their heads that displays irritation, but still, they strut back and forth with their necks arched. They’re like twelve-year-old’s in grade school with their sleeves rolled up to show muscles still waiting for puberty.

The challenging birds will stamp their feet, drop their wings or pretend to preen their leg bands all in an effort to warn me to keep my distance. If I were dealing with wild birds, I would mimic that behavior to convey the message that I was ready to stand my ground. But these are chicks testing their limits and learning about hierarchy. So instead, I don’t provoke a fight but rebuff their attacks. Normally, you can stare them down with a puppet held over their heads but these birds will move in for the attack. They open their wings and jab with their beaks. You can gently push back with the puppet but a couple of times I had to restrain the most aggressive among them. One simple way is to make a loop with your thumb and index finger around their neck and hold it down. The loop is bigger around than their neck so no damage is done or even feathers ruffled. Holding their head down is like pinning a human opponent. It doesn’t cause injury but limits their options. Once they calm slightly and re-fold their wings, I let go. That is a tactic that only works with young birds and only if your fingers are long enough not to be squeezing their neck. 

It is interesting to speculate on why these birds are more aggressive to the costume than any other cohort I have encountered. Maybe it is because at Patuxent they were not taken out individually to exercise with the loud and frightening trike. Maybe that early morning one-on-one adventure into the great unknown was enough to cement the costume in the most dominant position. Or maybe it is because none of us wants to start a fight with a critically endangered Whooping crane. It is far easier to turn our back and walk away. To us that is a simple way to avoid a confrontation but to them, it’s a sign of weakness. We backed down and that’s as good as a win. And maybe all the other birds were watching and wondering if they too should test our authority. 

Over the last few days, I have stood my ground and pushed back often enough to let them know I am not an easy mark, so things have settled down. I can still see the odd confrontation brewing but it is easily deferred without losing face.

Costumed Joe with this year’s cohort. Photo: Colleen Chase

At one point yesterday morning, the birds were all together eating mealworms at our feet when number 2 strutted by in front of me. I could see her puff up as she passed, but then she reconsidered and kept walking. Aha I thought, we’re making progress on our friendship. But just then, number 4 poked her in the butt and quickly turned away. Number 2 snapped around and looked straight at me like I was the culprit. She was mad and I even caught myself holding up my costumed hand as if to say “WAIT, it wasn’t me” while I pointed my puppet at the quickly retreating number 4. I don’t think she bought it and she stood tall ready to take me on. I was laughing so hard at both number 4’s tactic and my reaction that I had to turn my back and walk away. In hindsight, I think I was set up and it was all part of a plan to get the newbie.  

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  1. Joe July 27, 2017 3:33 pm

    You forget Barb, that our ambition for these birds is that they find and associate with older, experienced Whooping cranes. If their conditioned reaction is to start a fight, they may end up without role models that could teach them the ways of the wild, even if only by example. This aggression has to do with establishing a dominance structure within the flock and I am not sure it relates to their reaction to predators.

  2. Sue July 24, 2017 1:26 pm

    That was a fabulous story. Loved it! I enjoy and appreciate each and every one, and always look forward to the next. Amazing how species imitate each other.

  3. Mindy July 24, 2017 1:04 pm

    Oh Joe, what a story! At least you are around to quell the aggression. If they were to go up to a big adult and do a poke after their release, it could be bad. They must learn the hierarchy, like any species, and since the Costumes are seen as other Whoopers, you are a good teacher for them. Thank you for all you do for them, even the discipline parts. They are an interesting case study as to why this class is more aggressive. This trait will serve them well in the predator realm.

  4. Colleen July 24, 2017 12:56 pm

    Barb, I like the aggressive streak too. The chicks are not aggressive toward each other just the unfamiliar. I am hoping this is a good thing and continues!

  5. Susan O’Connell July 24, 2017 8:07 am

    Funny! Wish we had “like” on these posts!

  6. Barb July 24, 2017 7:35 am

    I’m surprised, Joe, that aggressive behavior is being discouraged. Being able to stave off enemies is what will help ensure their survival once they are released, and for that they must be aggressive and wary of everything. I don’t think being friends with another species is a good thing for Whooping Cranes. Of course if you were teaching them to fly South, via airplane, well, that would be different.

    • Cathy Fouche July 24, 2017 8:45 am

      Aggressive behavior must be discouraged by the handlers. Not only for the safety of the handler and other chicks, but for the aggressive bird as well, in a group setting.

    • karen anne July 24, 2017 8:47 am

      That was my thought also, but who knows.