John F. Kennedy’s inaugral address and whooping cranes

As I have said before in these pages, I sometimes see connections between things that most people would conclude are totally disconnected. Be that as it may, consider the following.

On January 20, 1961, President Kennedy gave his inaugural address. It was memorable.  One of the phrases that stuck with me is our President statement that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Today, I wonder what would happen if we slightly rewrote his words.  How about: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty whooping cranes.”

I don’t hate whooping cranes, although I spent many years litigating whether the Big Bend reach of the Platte River should be remade to accommodate this small band of birds so as to promote their alleged well-being above all other considerations, human and otherwise. (This stretch of the Platte River is designated “critical habitat” for these majestic but ungainly creatures. The designation is scientifically dubious, but that fight is probably long-lost.) I should also add that my son is an academic biologist, currently studying riverine systems*, and he has a deep and abiding love for all living things. He has taught me both the value and the fragility of the world’s living creatures. Truly, I don’t hate whooping cranes, although I don’t worship them either.

To be blunt, we go to hysterically funny lengths to try preserve these ungainly things even though Whoopers may be an evolutionary dead-end. For example, of “the 289 whooping cranes brought to central Florida since 1993 under the guidance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only 31 have survived and just nine chicks have hatched in the wild.” Justin Nobel, Audubon MagazineWhoopers Whopped Again (October 22, 2008). That said, as of 2008, the “entire North American continent is home to just 536 whoopers, 131 of which are in captivity.” Id. But don’t recoil in ecological horror just yet. This is actually a huge number given the fact that by “1941 the North American whooping crane population had been reduced to 16 individuals.” Id. 

Spend a moment and read about some of the Herculean efforts that have been made to prompt these awkward things into expending just a bit of effort to preserve themselves:

  • We act like their mothers. “Into the west-blowing wind, Marianne Wellington sprints uphill, flapping her arms up and down. She is calling, ‘Prrrr! Prrrrrr!’ rolling the r’s in a high-pitched trill. Behind her follow eight cinnamon-brown chicks on two-foot-long pinkish legs, leaping and flapping. From eggs laid in the wild in Northwest Territories, Canada, and hatched in captivity in Wisconsin, the chicks, ranging in age from 7 to 9 weeks, are just discovering what their newly feathered wings are for. ‘Crane mothering is tiring. I can only take so much running and then I have to rest,’ said Wellington. At least she knows her colleagues will not laugh at her. At various times, many of them have run around wearing crane costumes and frog-walked backward while operating a crane puppet.” Sy Montgomery, Science / Medicine: Whooping Cranes Stretching Out: Breeding: One of the world’s most endangered family of birds is coming back from brink of extinction. Aviculturists go to any lengths, including performing the ritual mating dance, to save the species., LA Times (September 17, 1990) (paragraphs have been condensed from original).
  • We do mating dances with them.The dance, researchers believe, is a necessary step in getting the crane to ovulate. It [Tex] was artificially inseminated with semen from a male whooping crane at Patuxent, and in 1982, after several failures, it laid a fertile, healthy egg. In the territory Archibald [the researcher] and Tex had staked out on a grassy hillside, the two gathered nesting material, foraged together, danced and co-incubated the precious egg. Archibald piled his sleeping bag on the nest and set up a card table so he could read and write while keeping the egg warm. Meanwhile, Tex went foraging. Later that season, Tex was tragically eaten by a raccoon, but the egg survived in an incubator. Gee Whiz hatched on the first of June.” Id.
  • We instill “whooperness” in them using crane costumes.  “For others slated for release into the wild, different protocols are used. That is where the crane costumes come in. Wild cranes are justifiably afraid of humans, who may illegally hunt them or disturb their nests. To make sure the group to be released retains that healthy fear, ICF ethologist Robert Horwich makes sure he is not mistaken for a human. He dresses up his full body in the garb of a crane. The costume he designed looks like something you might see in a Halloween parade–one sleeve ends with a puppet head, the other is covered in cloth feathers. Horwich’s body is draped with a gray sheet, and his face is covered with an opaque black patch to mimic the sandhill’s markings.” Id.
  • We fly with them. “This technique relies on the birds’ natural instinct called imprinting. Imprinting means the just-hatched waterfowl chick immediately trusts the first object it sees and follows the object. As soon as the chicks hatch, they bond with their parents and become inseparable. The OM team acts as surrogate parents, helping the birds imprint on the aircraft and conditioning them to fly with it. Later, when the birds are mature, they are led south by the OM team on a pre-determined route to a safe wintering site.” Operation Migration, Our Story (last accessed October 15, 2014). See also US Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release, Tenth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida Zooms into Kentucky (November 23, 2010) (“In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Each subsequent year, biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Florida. Having been shown the way once, the young birds initiate their return migration in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own.”)

In philosophy, the ‘golden mean’ is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Best to leave this post at that.


*See, e.g., R. Keller Kopf, PhD., Ecological Responses to Altered River Flow Regimes, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University (last accessed October 15, 2014) (Murray-Darling River Basin, Australia).


17 responses

  1. Doesn’t your comment that “Whoopers may be an evolutionary dead-end” require us to forget that our destruction of their habitat is strongly implicated in their decline? An evolutionary dead end, perhaps, if evolutionary continuity requires being able to live with homo sapiens and our knack for consuming everything in our paths…

  2. Ted would never say what he did and did not write and JFK was a good writer in his own right and had a gifted writing staff including NU grad Lee White. I asked him about some remarks at a press conference of JFK’s and he responded that the best thing he ever wrote was his study of rate setting for telephone companies by NE Railway Commission. Read it and it is very good.

  3. Eric,

    The biologists I once hired as experts, who were not of the “whore” variety, had serious doubts about the evolutionary viability of these strange creatures, particularly given their breeding problems with and without habit management. It is also hard to explain why Sandhill cranes (with a population of around 650,000) do well without much help from humans (in some places they are hunted), but Whoopers require the extraordinary measures mentioned in the text. In fact, there is pretty good evidence that Whoopers were never common with an estimated population of around only 10,000 during the Pleistocene period. And, near the end of the Civil War, long before there was serious human intervention to the Big Bend reach of the Platte River, the entire population of Whoopers transiting America had declined to somewhere between 500 to 1,400. Given that there are more than 500 Whoopers now, one could make a pretty good argument that enough is enough.

    All the best.


  4. Judge To have hired non whore experts puts you among the elect. I always applied the Irish test of no better than they should be. Glad you got your war story in, I have no standing to complain.

  5. Be careful, your Honor. You might confuse Eric with facts. Now, back to my place under the rock. 🙂

    I saw a whopper once one early evening as I was driving along I-80 between Kearney and Lexington – it was bright white among all the Sandhill cranes out in a cornfield about 200 yards or so north of the interstate. I now wish I had stopped, but at those speeds it was not practical.

    Thanks for the interesting commentary.

  6. “whooper”!!! I’m not telling a “whopper.” 🙂 i never was worth a damn as a typist. One of my sisters got that talent in her genes.

  7. repenting lawyer,

    I was always for hiring the other kind, but I had a client with scruples. I always hated representing honest clients.

    All the best.


  8. MOK,

    Actually, your sighting has biological relevance. Despite the fact that the river is supposed to be critical habitat, the few sightings of whooping cranes tended to be in cornfields north of I-80. All the best.


    PS Incidentally, and although I did not actually see the performance, I am told that former Governor Bob Crosby, who did a lot of Platte river litigation, could do a killer imitation of the whooping crane two step. Bob was short, not much taller than a whooper, so the role suited him perfectly. Litigation involving these issues was fun ’cause the lawyers were good and fair but tough. Bob was among the best. I really like him.

  9. Thanks for the reply, Judge Kopf (and also for your blog, which I thoroughly enjoy). Clearly I need to do more research, and am certainly no expert, but for what it’s worth, my data came from here:

    Assuming they are reliable (and I think the ICUN is generally reputable) Those data agree with yours with respect to numbers just after the Civil War (1300-1400 birds), but I read them as saying that there were greater than 10,000 birds as late as the 15th century, and having declined to just 15 by 1938.

    I don’t disagree with you at all that they are evolutionarily challenged. It just seems to me that their dead end might be several centuries earlier but for our intervention. It seems reasonable to me to try and undo some of that damage, but I take your point that we may have reached the point where we have done all that we reasonably can/should.

  10. Eric,

    The data you have and the data I cited are essentially the same. And, you are right, we should make a concerted effort to save these unusual creatures. That is true even now.

    By the way, you probably caught a part of my old passion on this subject. Making you the target of that passion wasn’t fair. By way of explanation, some in the environmental movement have a religious zeal for saving these creatures while ignoring the science. That still sets me off.

    Thanks for being a good sport. I appreciate it.

    All the best.


  11. Your blog on Whooping Cranes got me thinking (I like that), and replying. So, as a bit of counterpoint: Whooping Cranes notwithstanding and Jack Kennedy more important, the real issue is democracy. Democracy is at risk to capitalism, the Republic is in denial because of it too, and the American public is overwhelmed. Capitalism is the new political party!
    You wrote, “To be blunt, we go to hysterically funny lengths to try preserve these ungainly things even though Whoopers may be [at] an evolutionary dead-end.” To me, there is no “we.” There are a several individuals, perhaps some that have decided to go to extreme measures to preserve something on the verge of elimination because of the dominance of other populations around them. This is something I thought democracy took rather seriously; i.e., the protection of the micro-community, unique populations that are looking for a place where they can seek the protection of the “law” and gain “justice” that would enable them the unique place they have in history, even evolutionary history.
    Idealism now causes the radical polarization of the non-participants. People without a care in the world for Whooping Cranes will now argue endlessly, and for what? Then we get idealists like Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton fighting a senseless battle of polarized impossibilities at the expense of the ‘real’ people that live in the middle. Does this help the many with how to pay the bills when inflation has stolen most of their money in the last five to ten years! And they’re both wealthy so who cares really about what they think?
    If Jack were alive today, he would be just shy of 100 years old; he was born May 29, 1917. He may have been a young Catholic, president but wouldn’t he would be associated with a generation that is far older than what most of us know today? Surely, he expressed ideals realistic of the time as that kind of thing was expected. Here you can take a trip down memory lane, if you like, in 1962:
    It was not the best of times for many. The core values of being Republican, of being Democrat, were already being assaulted by the demon called capitalism. Even so, I digress. Democracy is the issue here, speaking of seeing things that others may not. The republic is in danger of losing its core values because everything has come down to money – who has it and who does not. Obviously your whooping cranes do not, as do so many others and will those so many others be seen at least metaphorically if not realistically, as whooping cranes too?
    Judge, if I follow your line of thinking – and I do not wish to misrepresent your blogs – then it seems as if it is not worth it to preserve the few, the unique, the remarkable and the exceptional; something I thought Democracy grounded itself in and Republicanism founded itself upon. That I must say is untenable. If we can rid ourselves of whooping cranes so causally then what or who else is equally expendable, and who else will then be failed by the virtues of Democracy and Republicanism?

  12. Yes, I am familiar with the whooping crane story about Bob Crosby, too – heard it first from our mutual friend, HWK. For some reason I feel like I have seen a photo of him “re-enacting” that incident, but I could be wrong. Anyhow, I had the pleasure of meeting him one time out in North Platte. He and Carl Curtis were working together on some kind of case and used our office conference room to take depositions. Both of the gentlemen were in their later years, but still having fun, like a couple of banty roosters. Gov. Crosby, who was born in North Platte, was of added interest to me, too. His family home on 5th street (I think), where I assume he was born, was owned at that time by close friends of mine. They had worked hard to restore the modest place to much like its original condition, to preserve its historical significance. However, they didn’t put up a “Bob Crosby Slept Here” sign.

  13. Dear Frank,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I apologize for the late reply.

    When I write stuff like this essay, I run the risk of not being clear. I fear that your comment proves that I failed in my obligation to write with clarity.

    I don’t mind spending money, lots of money, on the environment. But, I also want hard-headed scientific analysis to justify the expenditure. For some in the environmental movement, science is only a means to a political end. The science is fudged or ignored to achieve an unscientific purpose. The Whooper post was intended to illustrate that concern.

    I hope this helps. All the best.


  14. Thanks, Judge. It was clear but for the additional ‘means to a political end.’ This I affirm whole-hardheartedly. Rhetorically, then again what ever happens when the Federal Medusa attempting government intelligence, is not riddled with political motivation? Diametrically though, “If you’re honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you’re forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal. This puts you metaphysically on the run. America is full of metaphysical outlaws.” — Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
    I enjoy your blog. Frank

  15. Frank,

    I urge you to watch a short film entitled, “Still Life with Animated Dogs.” It shows a man in Prague in 1958 under the Communists, his escape to America, and the part dogs played in making him more human. In Still Life with Animated Dogs you will meet Roosevelt, Ike, Johnson, and Spinnaker, the canine companions who helped shape Paul Fierlinger’s evolution as an artist and as a man. It is a story of a metaphysical outlaw, gently told.

    All the best.


  16. A great little film that dog lovers especially will understand – very well done and thought provoking. Thanks for the “escape”.

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