How did the whooping crane learn to reproduce in captivity?

The fight to save the endangered whooping crane began as early as the 1930s. Since then the struggle has acquired a certain mystique, exemplifying the recent awareness that man cannot live at the expense of other creatures.

The United States government and the National Audubon Society initiated studies and programs to aid the majestic cranes, and National Audobon Society Research Director Robert Porter Allen in 1952 published a monograph The Whooping Crane, which became a classic on the bird, whose habits were until then little known.

The tallest flying bird in North America, the whooping crane stands up to five feet tall, with a wing span of nearly eight feet. The bird is white, with spindly black legs, silky black wing tips, a sinuous neck, and a vibrant bugle-like voice. The single wild flock, numbering 73 in 1982, migrates thousands of miles between the Wood Buffalo National Park in Cam, da’s Northwest Territories and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast.

One of the most ingenious attempts to rehabilitate the cranes was that of Dr. George Archibald, who in a sense became the “father” of a baby crane. MAN AND BIRD DANCE TOGETHER TO PRESERVE SPECIES reported The New York Times in March 1980.

Archibald had, in fact, mastered the ritual mating dance of the whooping crane and performed the lively pas de deux with Tex, a 13-year-old crane living at Archibald’s International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Tex (who was christened in San Antonio, Texas, before her sex was determined) might more suitably have danced with the dashing male in a nearby pen, but she had been raised by humans and had developed a filial attachment to people rather than to her own species.

So for three spring mating seasons running, Archibald and Tex had danced and flapped and called to each other. Starting about eight feet from the regal crane, Archibald raised his arms, jumped straight up, then crouched with arms still outspread.

He continued doing deep knee bends, occasionally picking up grass and sticks and throwing them in the air, all of which stimulated Tex to join him. She succumbed, shimmying and huffing, lifting her neck up and down, turning and flapping her wings, and sometimes picking up grass and sticks. Then when she stretched her wings and lifted her tail in the climax of the ritual, three attendants rushed into the pen and artificially inseminated the receptive crane. They inserted a syringe in the bird’s cloaca and injected sperm obtained from a male whooping crane that morning.

Tex produced one egg each spring but these three never added a healthy chick to the fragile whooper population: one was infertile, another contained a deformed chick that soon died, and the shell of the third was too thin.

In 1980 Archibald was unable to dance, and Tex, it appeared, would have no other. She refused to dance with Japanese ornithologist Yoshimitsu Shigeta, who even wore a special white jumpsuit to enhance his image. Whooping cranes are, in fact, monogamous throughout their long lives of 30 to 60 years, and Tex was hooked on Archibald. In 1982 the amorous pair were reunited. Archibald spent 12 to 16 hours a day in her pen for six consecutive weeks, and Tex at last laid a fine, strong egg. On June 1, a healthy chick hatched and was aptly named Gee Whiz.

Two months later a violent tragedy ended the romance and plans for future progeny. A raccoon climbed the fence around Tex’s pen, gnawed through the flight netting, and killed her, leaving only Gee Whiz to live up to his mother’s fame and carry on her line.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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