Time to Pill the Cranes

Over the course of the summer, the cranes need de-worming so the ICF medical team measures out the dosage and provides us with a schedule. It all sounds easy but nothing involving Whooping cranes is ever simple.  

They gobble down grapes when we offer them as treats so adding medication to a recognized food source seems logical, except each bird has its own dosage and it doesn’t work if number 2 gets number 3’s pill. As soon as a grape magically appears on the end of a puppet beak, they all run to get it first. Even if you manage to get it to the correct bird, it seems to be fair game until it is finally swallowed. In fact, a grape can change hands (or beaks) up to four times before one of them actually eats it.

Problem two is getting the medication into the grape. A 3/8’s drill bit, twisted by hand into the grape makes a clean cavity for an over-sized capsule.

Problem three is that each bird gets three large, full capsules plus one more that’s partially filled. Problem four is that gelatin capsules dissolve quickly in wet grapes, so if the birds won’t take them today, they won’t keep until tomorrow.

Problem five is that they are on to us. They know the grapes that are medicated from the grapes that are not and I have no idea how. In fact, that brings up a question I have been asking for years. It’s one of those niggling curiosities that makes you wonder, but never comes to mind when there is someone around who could provide an answer. How do cranes know that whatever they find in the mud is edible simply by holding it at the end of their long beaks? The morsels they dig up are either discarded or tossed back and swallowed. And it seems their decisions are always correct because you rarely see them spit it back out. So what sensory system works at the end of chopstick-like beaks?

At roost checks Friday evening, the birds were reluctant to take treats. That could have to do with timing. They may have just finished filling up at the feeders before we arrived. So we decided to wait until after they flew yesterday when they expect something tasty. Problem six: You may have noticed that the grass on the runway has been mowed recently and that left a lot of cuttings, so much so that we could almost use a hay baler. Damp grapes dropped in the grass are covered in straw when they are retrieved and are no longer appetizing. Instead of eating them, the chicks poke and prod until the pill pops out or the capsule ruptures and white power sprinkles out like contraband. 

We also tried some baitfish minnows but first they must learn that fish are edible. They run around with their prize flopping in their beak, attracting the envy of all the others who give chase. Who knows which crane will end up with the fish and that breaks all the rules of dispensing drugs.

All but two birds have now received a full dosage. After all of our discussions and brain storming, the next time we toss them a grape laced with medication, it may all fall into place. The backs of all the other birds may be turned so only the target chick sees the proffered grape. The grass cuttings may have blown away, the grape will stay clean and down it will go with no trouble at all. Or not.

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  1. Susan O’Connell July 31, 2017 8:21 am

    I wonder if there’s a way to lead one chick at a time to their enclosed pen to give them their grapes or you think they would be in on that game?

    • Heather Ray July 31, 2017 10:49 am

      We’ve done that in the past… In the end all received their meds.

  2. Susanne Shrader July 30, 2017 8:38 pm

    OMG! You must have a sadistic vet!

  3. Dorothy N July 30, 2017 6:26 pm

    OMG — what a task!!! Is someone assigned “secretarial” duties for each of you who is the “grape handler” so you carefully record who’s been given none, some (and how much), or all of the dose? Sounds like you’ll all need a self-congratulatory party after all the cranes have been dosed.

  4. Barb July 30, 2017 3:34 pm

    Oh boy, can I understand the pill problem. We raise Labrador Retrievers, and if they need some meds, its really hard to trick them. I swear they can smell the pill/capusule hidden in even the most tasty treat. Maybe the Whoppers can smell them too. Any more, I just open their mouth and stick it down their throat. They don’t seem to mind, and it saves every one a lot of grief. But I doubt that could be done for a Whopper.

  5. Sue McCurdy July 30, 2017 12:58 pm


  6. lilbirdz July 30, 2017 12:04 pm

    Oy vey! It is never easy. You folks are challenged daily, and I admire the way you always meet those challenges.