Back in 1976, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. produced the IMAX film ”To Fly,” which documented the history of manned flight, from balloons to the space shuttle. The film has played in their theater several times a day, every day for the last forty years. I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times. If the Smithsonian was to make a similar movie today chronicling the lives of Mutt and Jeff, it would be entitled “To Walk.”
Last week, we were taken completely by surprise as our two little darlings left the familiar safety of their beloved ag field, walked over to the nearby road and headed off for parts unknown. Now, the Marquette County birds, #31 & 38-16, have been hoofing it almost daily since their release, giving Heather and Joanne cause to add “Crossing Guard” to their resumes while they endeavor to prevent the chicks transitioning from “Road Warriors” to “Road Kill.”
We, however, have been lucky. Until last week, that is. There is strong scientific evidence suggesting that on the night of the 14th, the fates, in a fit of diabolical mischief, dialed up that most insidious of all earworms, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and channeled the signal through the chicks’ dental work into their little brains. Colleen jumped… ah, drove into action, hand hard on the horn, her feet dancing between accelerator and brakes. And soon the chicks flew back onto the field. “Women drivers”! Mutt commented to Jeff, shaking his head in disgust.
Why would they choose to walk when they could so easily fly, you ask? Good question. Maybe they just ran the numbers and realized walking is faster. I mean, what self -respecting airline passenger hasn’t come to the same conclusion while standing in a long airport security line in a futile attempt to board a plane that already left a half hour earlier. When you add up the transportation time to and from the airport, the time you stand in the security line explaining to the TSA agent who was just released from prison what the toenail clippers are for, the time it takes you to earn the money for the plane ticket in the first place, the time you spend shopping for peanuts so you’ll have something to eat on the plane, and all the time you spend removing the seat belt from your car so you can strap yourself in without having to rent one from the airline. And then there’s the time you spend cramming all your stuff in the kitchen trash compactor so you can fit it in the bag that will fit in the overhead compartment. Plus the time you spend standing out on the curb waiting for a guy named Jamal who just recently learned to drive on the right side of the highway in a car with a steering wheel on left side to bring your lost luggage… well, it really IS faster to walk!
Not that this is the first time the issue has presented itself. On my first whooper migration way back when, I happened to notice Bill Lishman staring down at his calculator in disbelief. Then he looked up, wide eyed and said, “Do you realize that if we had walked the birds to Florida instead of flying them, we would be there by now!” Who knew? But as anyone who has participated in a migration of any kind knows, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
But walking has always had a page in the whooper play book. I remember my first introduction to “walking whoopers” back in 2006. Richard and I were in the Necedah maintenance shop welding new axles under the pen trailers when Refuge Manager, Larry Wargowsky came running in yelling, “The First Family” is on the highway”! We raced out to Route 21 to see both parents and the project’s first wild hatched chick, W1-06, walking happily down the road as a large tractor trailer back and forthed its way back onto the road and pulled away, allowing both lanes of backed up traffic to resume speed. “Did you see that?” exclaimed the ICF tracker who had arrived minutes before we did. “See what?” we replied. “That tractor trailer almost wiped them out! The driver jammed on his brakes so hard the truck jack knifed into the other lane before stopping just short of the birds!” We gasped at the thought of what impact such a tragedy would have on the project. That’s when the tracker looked at us quizzically and asked, “Why are you surprised? I often see our whoopers walking on roads.” All we could say was, “Yikes!” This was not the kind of “wildness” we had planned on. But then, it is still very much a jungle out there… only different.
The rest of the story is Richard Urbanek soon arrived and we proceeded to catch the chick, band it, and return it to its parent’s territory on the Refuge in the belief her parents would return for her… which they did. It is interesting to note here that she grew up to have two or three chicks of her own over the years but sadly has never able to keep any of them alive long enough to fledge.
In the years since, we have been lucky. Only one of the four released parent reared chicks was lost to vehicle impact the experiment’s first year and another was believed to be similarly lost the second year. Still, what parent can sit back and watch his or her children play in traffic. And so we add “road kill” to the long list of whooper threats and prepare accordingly, as best we can.
For now, we sit and observe. If our little dynamic duo wanders out into the road, we intervene by hazing them off with the van, horn blaring to the max. And when we see them heading towards the road, we again intervene but to a more subtle degree. Hopefully, in time, the road will lose its romantic appeal and they will imitate the wild birds and fly up, up and away on that highway in the sky.
Then all we have to do is make sure they left their Samsung Galaxy 7 smart phones at home!