|DATE: Oct. 28, 2012 – Entry 2
||MIGRATION DAY 31/DOWN DAY 2
|FLOWN TODAY: 0 miles
||ACCUMULATED: 289 miles
|LOCATION: Piatt County, IL
||REPORTER: Joe Duff
We try to take a scientific approach to our work with Whooping cranes. We go to great lengths to keep our birds wild for a number of valid reasons, but mostly because that is how they were meant to be. Whooping cranes don’t fit into the category of urban wildlife like the kind that frequents backyard feeders, or takes handouts in parks. Instead they cling to what little remoteness we have left them. They are the guardians of wilderness and their call ranks up there with the howl of wolves or the growl of bears.
It is a sad fact that whenever humans and wild animals interact, the animals generally get the short end of the stick. Of course there are exceptions to that rule and we hope that our project is one of them. We interfere with their natural lives of these birds. We manipulate their imprinting instinct and familiarize them with our aircraft, but it’s all for a greater good. In the end, our ambition is to establish a population of birds raised by wild parents in an area once inhabited by their ancestors. We can only hope the result justifies the means.
In the course of a season, from the time they hatch until they are released in Florida, we watch them mature and we gain insight into their personalities. Despite our attempts to remain aloof and to treat these birds with scientific detachment, we succumb to their individuality and we grieve when one is lost.
The pensite where #10 broke her leg is in a flat field in a shallow valley. The winds were strong out of the north and they carried the birds and trikes along at better than 60 miles per hour. At altitude the winds were smooth but close to the ground they rolled over trees and hills and created a turbulent layer than extended up a hundred feet or more. When Brooke landed, his full attention was focused on getting down safely. The birds followed him in but he had little time to watch them land. As he secured his aircraft, he noticed #10 standing off alone and when he investigated he found she had a broken leg.
The rest of the team were spread over the 150 road miles between the stopovers. Richard had stayed with #6 who had dropped out and landed in a partly harvested corn field. He circled overhead and talked John Copper and me in, while Brooke continued on with the rest of the flock. When we had #6 in sight Richard left, but by then he was forty minutes behind Brooke. It took John and me over an hour to coax #6 out of the corn so when Brooke arrived at the landing site, he was all alone.
Initially #10 was walking, but that soon ended. She stood quietly on one leg with her head drooped. The wind was so strong that balancing was difficult so Brooke provided a wind block. When Richard arrived, Brooke lowered #10 to a sitting position then helped move the rest of the birds to the usual hiding place in preparation for the pen setup.
When John and I arrived an hour later, we carried the crate containing #6 to the middle of the field and released her. Then we led her to where the rest of her flockmates were waiting. Richard and John stayed with them while Brooke and I hurried to #10 who was still resting where he had left her. I picked her up while Brooke stabilized the leg. We put a hood over her head so she couldn’t see, and I drove the tracking van down. Brooke held her as we drove an hour to the University of Illinois in Urbana. Just as we were leaving, Colleen arrived with the pen. She then watched the birds while Richard and John set it up.
Dr. Julia Whittington is a professor of Veterinary Medicine at the Wildlife Medical Clinic in Urbana. She and a team of her students were waiting for us and it wasn’t long before #10 was sedated. They x-rayed the leg and she showed us the multiple fractures above the left hock. The breaks were in the center of the bone and all the pieces were held in place by the skin so there was not a lot of realigning to do. There was also a large portion of solid bone above and below the breaks which Dr Whittington felt could be used as anchor points for pins. They agreed to try.
The University and Illinois, Wildlife Medical Clinic and Veterinary School looked to me like the Mayo Clinic for animals. They provide advanced medical assistance to any animal in need of care and use the cases for teaching. All of this service is free and we can’t thank them enough for their expertise and willingness to help.
If the surgery were successful, number 10 would stay at the clinic for four weeks. This would give the Recovery Team time to arrange for placement of the bird as a breeder or for education and display. We were even thinking it might be releasable. The bird would be held in relative isolation and visited once a day to have the dressing checked and cleaned. It would all be a negative experience for the birds and if no attempts were made to tame the bird it might have a chance. At least it would be an interesting experiment. We could re-socialize her in Florida and see if she made her way back in the spring.
All of this was optimistic speculation and of no use because number 10 died on the operating table when the surgery was almost complete. Dr Whittington told me that her students were all excited to work on this case and visibly upset by the outcome. Number 10 will be shipped to the USGS Animal Health Center for a necropsy on Monday.
We talked at length about how this could have happened. The break was consistent with a hard landing, but it is hard to believe that a bird could break its leg by landing wrongly. On the other hand, wading birds are precarious on the ground and those gangly legs are delicate. It would be like fitting ten foot tall landing gear on a Cessna. Landing, especially in strong winds, would put the greatest stress on their legs. We know that juveniles are not full expert flyers. We have seen them fly into trees and collapse on landing. Also, a few birds from this population have been found with broken legs. We have always suspected power line impact but maybe they were just caught in high winds.
When we left the Wildlife Medical Clinic we drove back to camp, although Liz’s motorhome was the only one there. Then John and I drove the 150 miles back to our starting point in LaSalle County and picked up the last two vehicles. Our day ended at 1:00 AM but it seemed like a month long.
I also want to thank Paul Kruse. He is the farmer who owns the field where number 6 landed. When John and I arrived there were no cars in the driveway. We assumed no one was home and took the liberty of driving into the field behind his barn. As we were suiting up, Paul walked out to meet us carrying a tablet computer and declaring that he just figured out who we were. My first reaction was to apologize for trespassing but in a truly generous style he welcomed us and wished us luck.
Number 6 was hiding in the tall corn. Walking through dried corn makes a lot of noise and the wind didn’t help. Each time we approached her, she would run along the rows. I stepped over a few rows so I wouldn’t be chasing behind her and tried to get in front. She would reverse her course and run towards John, but then step over a row or two at the last minute. We tried sitting still, hoping she would come to us, but then were forced to follow in case we lost sight of her in the 100 acre corn labyrinth.
I was worried we might not get her, but finally John put his hand on her back long enough for me to pick her up. I carried her to the crate. It was only then that we had a chance to speak with Paul and thank him for his understanding.