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 Magazine, Whoopers 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).