From grade one until high school my daughter attended all her classes in French. That included mathematics, geography and even art. It’s an option available in many public schools where we live in Ontario and one that I greatly envy.
I wish we could attend ‘Whooper-ese’ emersion classes. It would probably take a decade or so before we could understand all the subtleties they can convey with a simple call but as it is now, I am as lost communicating with them as Heather is trying to show me, once again, how to access Facebook.
Luckily most of their communications are non verbal and a good part of that language is intuitive. I’m not talking about flippin’ the bird, (excuse the pun) but just the nuances of body language. Cranes can’t smile or frown. They don’t have eyebrows to knit, bottom lips to quiver or chins to thrust forward. Still, they can fume and pout and worry just like us. Our job is to learn what gestures cranes use to substitute for a wink or a shrug and whether their posture is submission or aggressive. More importantly, we must learn how to react appropriately.
During our first or second training session with the class of 2015, two of the White River alumni dropped in to check on the new gals (and guy). The six, newly arrived chicks were dutifully following the aircraft up and down the runway when the two sub-adults silently glided overhead and expertly touched down at the end of the runway.
For the chicks, everything was new. They heard adults calling at Patuxent and were housed next to them but had never seen them fly. We try not to put these encounters into human terms but despite myself, I had visions of naive cadets arriving at flight school and seeing for the first time, the combat veterans all cool and confident with TOP GUN written in their demeanor.
Back to reality… I now had to deal with six chicks, new and nervous and two adults with unknown intentions. In their instinct driven minds, the two could be there to reclaim their natal territory or perhaps they just had fond memories of treats at the end of training. Or maybe the sounds of the engine and the brood call in the morning were just too familiar to ignore and they arrived with no intentions at all – the way I wandered the halls of my high school on the twentieth class reunion. Maybe they too thought the whole place was a lot smaller than they remember.
When 3-14 and 4-12 landed, the chicks and the trike were heading to that end of the runway. We stopped short and turned around while the adults fell into place, walking beside the aircraft. They weren’t strutting or fluffing feathers but some reaction from us was appropriate. If these two birds had dropped in on the territory of their wild parents, they would likely be chased off, especially if new chicks were present.
Female 3-14 (left) & male 4-12 fell into place with the young Whooping cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin
Our default position is to replicate the experience of a wild crane chick as much as possible, however our ability to do that is limited. Having adults present could provide good role models, or at the very least, sexual imprint models so the chicks identify with Whooping cranes and not people in costumes.
So our reaction to adults that drop in should be a balance between chasing them off for their benefit and allowing them limited access for the good of the chicks. We also have to keep in mind that it is almost impossible for a handler dressed in a costume to chase off an adult that was raised in that environment. No matter how fast we run, they can lope ahead just out of range. Or they can pop into the air and fly back to the runway after they’ve baited you deep into the marsh.
All of our speculation notwithstanding, the message we want to convey with our limited crane repertoire is that this is our territory, not theirs, however they are welcome to visit as long as they play nice.
They ventured a little too close to the aircraft as we were taxiing back to the pen. That demonstrated comfort and familiarity like this was their territory, so I chased them a bit with the trike. Not far and not aggressively but just enough to say that this is no longer your home. You can visit but you don’t live here anymore. It was an odd situation, as if the people who sold you a house dropped in to welcome you to the neighborhood but then helped themselves to the contents of your fridge. A little territorialism was in order.
Once the chicks were safely back in the pen, I walked slowly towards the intruders as they strutted and displayed their red crowns. They dropped a wing to warn me and pretended to preen in fake disinterest. I kept walking but at a slow and steady pace. They slowly turned away and we kept our distance as we moved farther down the runway and further from the pen. I stopped but did not turn my back and kept watching as if to say “keep walking boys” like the cowboy with the white hat in a 1950’s Hollywood western. Eventually, they wandered off into the marsh without declaring their victory with a unison call.
For us it is a great privilege to have encounters like this with wild birds on their terms and speaking their language. Who knows what they interpret but I suspect they think we are oversized, goofy looking Whooping cranes with really bad accents.
Photo: Doug Pellerin