As anyone who has ever done the right thing knows, it has its own special rewards. So does doing the wrong thing. And like others in our Field Journal audience, I have watched the reward increase for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer of female whooper #4-11. The reward is an expression of our collective outrage at such wanton taking of not just our precious bird, but for the unacceptable disrespect for all that she represented. Sadly, it seems to be part of the cost of doing business in “Whooper World.” Very sadly.
Unfortunately, this is all very familiar territory which I first entered a couple of decades ago working on Trumpeter Swan Migration Projects at Airlie. One season, we had three of our swans shot on an Upstate New York refuge despite the fact hunting swans was illegal. The dead birds were found neatly piled up, one atop the other. In the slew next to them was a beaver swimming around in frantic circles. It had been shot in the face and blinded. Two more of our swans were shot in subsequent weeks. In one case, the shooter cut off the swan’s head to remove the neck band transmitter which was thrown out into the marsh and later recovered by one of our volunteers. But to add perspective, six hunters were also shot that season. After that, the manager of the neighboring federal refuge, presumably concerned about the adverse publicity, told us that if we didn’t capture and remove our swans from HIS refuge, HE was going to go out and shoot them himself. Really? We complied.
When such shootings occur, hunters are often the focus of blame. But a gun in the hands of a responsible hunter is NOT a hammer looking for a nail. Hunters are often the greatest champions of responsible conservation and preservation of wildlife. They actually “pay the freight” with their license fees and taxes. To put it biological terms, they don’t just “talk the talk.” They “walk the walk.” Local hunting clubs got together and offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooter or shooters. It was never claimed. But is it even possible to build an invisible, protective geo-fence of awareness and appreciation around our birds? The next year, we went on the offensive and gave slide show presentations at hunting club meetings as well as hunter education programs and youth hunts. No more swans were shot.
Another year, one week after we completed our ultralight-led swan migration to Chesapeake Bay, our lead bird, Grace, was shot. It was agonizingly sad to have captured her as a signet in Alaska, raised and ultralight trained her in Virginia and upstate New York and migrated her to Maryland – only to have her shot a week after our arrival. We spent the remainder of the winter and spring camped on the floor of a nearby nature center classroom and spent our days in a truck or a kayak patrolling against another possible assault. We posted signs up on the small pier near where the bird was shot which said, “Let Wild Birds Be Wild. Please Don’t Feed the Swans.” Many mornings we would arrive to find piles of beer cans in front of our signs. They were shot full of bullet holes.
One year, we had another swan shot on a nest while incubating. The shooter was actually caught. He was 19 or 20 years old as I remember, just out of high school and definitely not what his parents had in mind when they coupled. The judge fined him and sentenced him to what some might say was a draconian and completely inhumane stint of community service… working with me on our swan project.
Perversely, his sentence was to become mine. In the days that followed, I was to learn the true meaning of futility while the chorus of the fate’s raucous laughter roared in my ears. It soon became clear that the only hope this guy had of ever really contributing to society was as an organ donor. In retrospect, the greatest service the judge could have done to both this idiot and society would have been to permanently secure a cow bell around his neck so that everyone and everything on Planet Earth would be forever warned of his presence and exact location.
When OUR sentence was served, he climbed into his beat up old pickup smoke-mobile, lit a cigarette and cranked the radio up so loud that all birds were abruptly shed from nearby trees. Then he leaned out the window and asked me if I wouldn’t mind reporting to the judge that he was, in fact, rehabilitated, a hard worker, and that I didn’t, in my heart of hearts, believe he would ever again shoot another swan. As if in afterthought, he confided that he had the weekend off before beginning yet another stretch of Community Service. Seems that on a recent occasion, while driving by his local alma mater, he was unable to resist that universal urge, so familiar to all such Cretans, to chain the giant high school sign to his truck bumper, tear it out of the ground and drag it off down the road and into the night. Very liberating. He was, after all, simply trying to express his creativity. It was all I could do to resist the urge to shake my head… for fear I would never be able to stop.
And now, all these years later, #4-11 is shot. Her last summer was a tough one. She and her mate, 12-02 had a chick. Later, Bev found the remains of 12-02 from the air, presumably lost to predation. Crane number 4-11 defied the odds and raised her chick alone until it fledged… a rare accomplishment in the WCEP population. Sadly, her chick disappeared shortly thereafter.
Whooping crane 4-11 and her chick W7-16. Photo: B. Pennypacker
I visited her and her chick last summer to assess capture options since her transmitter required replacement and the chick required banding. The last time I had seen her was in 2012 when she, along with her 2011 cohort, took off from Wheeler Refuge in Alabama one beautiful morning and headed off on their first migration back to Wisconsin. What a blessing it was not to be able to see into the future and know that she would eventually join the other roughly 20% of the WCEP whooping crane population to be shot.
And so it is difficult for us to process the senseless loss of our precious 4-11… tough to digest and understand how such chaos can be birthed from such promise and hope. And searching for meaning in such tragedy can feel like a helter skelter “Fool’s Errand.” Widening the focus reveals even more questions… like why is it that more than 3500 people were shot in Chicago last year and more than 750 were murdered. And is it any less of a crime to destroy the habitat of a species for reasons of convenience or financial gain than it is to shoot a single bird? We ponder such questions while our carbon footprints grow ever larger. Is it as Shakespeare wrote “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”? Perhaps we should post a reward for the answer.