Fly Away From Home and Don’t Come Back

A recent government study showed that 96 % of parents hope to one day become “Empty Nesters.” The remaining 4% were still living with THEIR parents. In fact, the book, “Empty Nesting Made Easy for Dummies” by John and Jane Doe has been #1 on the New York Times Best Seller’s List for the last one hundred and something weeks.  The authors could not use their real names for fear their grown children would locate them and move back home. And who can blame them?  I mean, what parent wants to grow old with the sound of “Hey Mom and Dad, What’s for dinner…” ringing in their ears? It’s no wonder building codes in most municipalities now prohibit attics and basements for fear the kids will continue to store their stuff in their parent’s home and continue to yo-yo back to get it. Some parents have actually built a wall around their homes. And last year alone, the government’s Witness Protection Program received over a million applications from parents trying to become…”Empty Nesters.”  Whether because of the economy, climate change or just too much screen time, grownup kids today refuse to leave home and it’s becoming a National Emergency.

Those of us in “Crane Land” know all about this problem because we are, in fact, “Empty Nester Wannabees” at least as far as our little whooper chicks are concerned. The movie, “Fly Away Home” was originally titled, “Fly Away From Home… And Don’t Come Back.” Trouble was, movie marquees just couldn’t handle the weight of all the letters. But as anyone who has been watching our CraneCam can tell you, our efforts have been focused on transitioning the chicks from captivity to release in the wild some time very soon. And this is a challenge to be sure, given the fact that wild whooper parents take a year to achieve “empty nester” status.

A costumed Colleen leads the young Whooping cranes to a secluded pond. Photo: B. Pennypacker

We plan to do it in a few short months. So, let’s face it – outsmarting Mother Nature is never easy. Besides, what self-respecting whooper wants to give up the security of the pen and three free square meals a day for the trials and tribulations of real life… which is why when we open the pen door every morning we hear them singing the Peter Pan Song, “I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to…” You know the one. But grow up they must.  And SOON!

That is why our business cards read “Whooper Reintroductor.” “What IS a Whooper Reintroductor”? the Immigration Officer asked me on a recent trip to visit my mother in New Jersey. “It’s a “Comfort Zone Expander,” I replied.  The officer looked up, gave me that all too familiar “Dog watching television” look, then asked, “And how long will you be staying in New Jersey”?

But achieving empty nester status is really all about expanding comfort zones one baby step at a time and superimposing our blue print on their genetic blue print… only ours is on steroids. The sadly soon to be unemployed professionals at Patuxent taught us the dance. Short walk today, longer walk tomorrow, pen today, ponded pen tomorrow, then big pond the day after that. It’s all built upon the foundation of trust… a trust constructed over time and repetition with tools like the costume, the puppet head, the vocalizer and a whole lot of experience. And it is very much a race against the clock. Like the poet said, “Migration waits for no man… or whooper chick.” Meanwhile, October awaits expectantly in the wings.

Spending time foraging on their own they are learning to be independent. Photo: B. Pennypacker

Our CraneCam viewers have enjoyed a ringside seat to this metamorphosis as our “Magnificent Seven” have progressed from timid “crow hoppers” to confident high fliers in the course of a few short weeks.  And they have watched our chicks’ horizons expand from the pen, to the end of the runway, out to the very edge of the “too far away to see’ zone while our ever loyal but frantic camera operators continue their thankless, never ending struggle to keep it all in frame.

And on the ground, each day is another trip down the “Independence Highway” from “pen wetting” to “pen weaning” with longer and longer hours spent at the north pond under the magical spell of Mother Nature’s “Whammy.” More to do, more to see and most importantly, more to eat… and each new experience an adventure of independence.

Photo: B. Pennypacker

In tomorrow’s post and each daily post until Crane Fest on Saturday, I’ll further chronicle this journey in hopes of enlightening us both. You’ll meet “Cage Man,” the “Dynamic Duo”, the Blind and some of the locals. So… stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you’re a parent and you hear a knock on the door, don’t answer it.  You can never be too careful.

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  1. Anne L. Ruh September 5, 2017 10:46 am

    Now that the ultralight guided migration is over will the birds travel by instinct and map their own route south?

    • Heather Ray September 5, 2017 10:52 am

      Yes, just as last year’s group did.

  2. Rolando September 4, 2017 4:39 pm

    “The sadly soon to be unemployed professionals at Patuxent taught us the dance”. Worry about this comment Is Patuxent closing permanently? Thank you for all you do… including visiting New Jersey

    • Heather Ray September 4, 2017 4:54 pm

      The Whooping Crane Propagation Center at Patuxent is closing. The rest of the facility will focus on research. The 2017 Whooping cranes will be the final group of cranes hatched and raised at Patuxent.

  3. Sue McCurdy September 4, 2017 9:58 am

    Please tell me why, on your site, my symbols turn to question marks.

    • Heather Ray September 4, 2017 12:27 pm

      I’m not sure. My ! are actual exclamation marks…. and not ? marks. What is your default font?

  4. Sue McCurdy September 4, 2017 9:56 am

    Thank you for your commentary Brooke. I know all of you will miss them when they fly away. I wish all of them a safe journey. Please put a gps on two of them and program it for Paynes Prairie FL. We would love to have them. I’m sure they would like it here?