Raising Crane

Inside a weird and wildly successful conservation program that’s being forced to fly the coop.

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Juvenile whooping cranes stand in the marsh at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center last August, about a month before being released into the wild.

Since 1993, a group of dedicated researchers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland have spent their summers dressing up and acting like big, white birds, in the interest of saving the incredibly endangered whooping crane. First, they don costumes that typically consist of black rubber boots, flowing white sheets that cover their whole bodies, and whooping-crane heads and necks made of felt and molded plastic, which slip over each researcher’s hand like a long glove. The effect is completed with small MP3 players and speakers which play recorded adult-whooping-crane vocalizations, plus a little bit of acting. “I'll put the head down like I'm looking for food, like a grasshopper or a worm. I'll poke around a bit. I'll amble a little more,” says Glenn Olsen, one of the longest-standing researchers working with the cranes both in Patuxent and migratory locations such as Wisconsin. “Sometimes if we hear danger, we'll flap our arms—our ‘wings’—to indicate that this is bad.” The costumed researchers teach the newborn chicks how and what to eat, how to drink, and what to be scared of, and they encourage them to exercise. The birds spend the summer in Maryland, growing from an unsteady, cinnamon-colored chick, or “colt,” to a five-foot-tall, snowy white juvenile, ready to begin their first migration.

After decades of work, the project has been successful: the number of whooping cranes is, finally, rising. In 1993 there were only 261 whooping cranes in the world, wild and captive; today there are 612. It's been a success story for conservation, though there are nowhere near enough cranes to remove the bird from the endangered species list.

But this is all about to change. When Topic reached Olsen in September for a follow-up interview after witnessing his team’s work in the field, he asked abruptly if we had heard the news: Patuxent’s crane ecology program, he told us, is being shut down. Olsen is a scientist; he’s enthusiastic, but not usually prone to speaking emotionally about his work. I asked how he was feeling, as he watched a program he’d worked on for nearly 25 years be shut down so unceremoniously.

“At this point, I really don't think I want to comment too much on that. It's very upsetting,” he said dryly.

Here Olsen wears two whooping crane mock heads. In the field, he would only wear one.
Olsen interacts with whooping crane colts at the research center.

Whooping cranes are a charismatic megafauna species. This is a term used, sometimes disparagingly, to refer to large animal species that humans are interested in, and thus sometimes want to save more than, say, an equally endangered yet gross bug or a boring tree. The whooping crane is North America’s tallest bird, standing at nearly five feet and colored white, with a distinctive red crown. They are goofy, funny creatures, with a rusty call that sounds something like what a beginner trumpet player might squawk out of the instrument.

Whooping cranes were once a common and entertaining sight throughout North America, numbering as many as 20,000 in the 18th century. Some populations summered in western Canada and the upper Midwest, then migrated to near the Gulf Coast for the winter. Some were nonmigratory, hanging out around wetlands in the Southeast all year. They also proved to be an easy target for hunters and vulnerable to habitat destruction. By 1941, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in the wild.

Patuxent’s crane program started in 1966, with the capture of an injured male named Canus (after the two countries that would have to work together to save the species). There were numerous efforts made to save the cranes, and some worked better than others. In one, the closely related and much more common sandhill crane was brought in to serve as a foster parent, an experiment that didn’t work so well. (The whooping cranes seemed to think they themselves were sandhill cranes, and did not want to associate with other whooping cranes. They actually bred with sandhills, too; their offspring would usually survive but be infertile, like mules.)

One advantage that the whooping crane has over other endangered species is its ability to have multiple clutches (bird-speak for litters) of eggs each breeding season, in the event that something happens to their first clutch. If a crane-parent couple loses a clutch, they can have another—and if they lose that one, sometimes a third. (Olsen says the birds are about as monogamous as humans.) That means breeding-program researchers can swipe eggs as soon as they’re laid, though the hatchlings will have no one to raise them. Enter the crane-costumed scientists.

Though nearly full-grown, the brown feathers of the juvenile birds distinguish them from adult cranes.
For more than a century, whooping cranes were extirpated from eastern North America. In March 1967, they were recognized as an endangered species.

“There were various folks through the 1980s that used costumes to rear crane chicks, but there wasn’t an ongoing program,” says Olsen. The beginning of the effort at Patuxent was a watershed moment for costumed breeding programs; it would actually allow researchers to figure out what worked and what didn’t. At first, the researchers used a taxidermied whooping-crane head, which was both sort of gruesome and not that stable; eventually they settled on a plastic molding instead, sometimes with a beak that opened and closed. “The major point of the costume is to disguise our human shape so they do not imprint on people, or associate people with food,” says Olsen. (Whooping cranes are generally extremely wary of human beings—though, as John James Audubon noted in the early 1800s, those in captivity can become so gentle that they allow themselves to be petted.)

For more than 25 years, Olsen has researched methods for reintroducing whooping cranes into the wild. He also studies the effects of breeding cranes for multiple generations in captivity, as compared to wild cranes.

Going even further, between 2001 and 2015 researchers tried to establish a permanent migratory population by dressing in crane costumes and flying an ultralight plane along the birds’ preferred migratory route, from Wisconsin down to Florida, with real cranes—juveniles and young adults—in tow. That effort was discontinued, says Olsen, because it wasn’t really necessary; today, there are enough adult birds who know that route to lead the new juvenile cranes to warmer climes for the winter.

The program, which costs about $1.5 million per year, has been a source of inspiration and a little bit of derision. The U.S. Geological Survey, which funds the program, does not seem to have been thrilled with it. John French, the director of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, wrote in an email to Topic that “the program has become now more about propagation and less about research.” (Patuxent’s other programs, which will not be affected by the crane program's shutdown, include monitoring contaminants in wetlands and banding birds.) French told the Washington Post that the costume-rearing program was “bizarre,” and implied that the costume-reared whooping cranes were unsuccessful in the wild.

This September, Olsen learned that the crane ecology program will be shut down.

Olsen bristled at the accusation that the costume-rearing program made for more vulnerable birds. “They survive in the wild as well as wild-raised birds. They have the same basic mortality rate as the wild-reared birds,” he says. Predation rates are high, but that’s due to external factors, such as the spread of coyotes from their historic habitats in the West into the Midwest and Northeast; if the birds are struggling to survive, it's not because of the way they were raised.

French tells me that the 75 cranes currently in the program will be sent to other breeding locations in Calgary and Wisconsin. “The relocation is not expected to affect whooping-crane recovery in the long term,” he writes. Despite French’s definitive tone, this seems doubtful: the whooping crane is still highly endangered. There are just over 600 in the entire world, and fewer than 500 in the wild. (For reference, the latest census found that there are 1,864 giant pandas in the wild.) The whooping crane is, according to Audubon, easily one of the most endangered bird species in North America. “Additional funding is needed to support recovery and breeding programs and to preserve migratory stopover habitat,” the magazine wrote in 2006. (Additional funding was not forthcoming: in 2008, the program had roughly the same budget, at $1.6 million, that it did this year.)

“It’s going to take years to recover,” says Olsen. More than a third of the entire wild population of whooping cranes was reared in captivity. It’s hard to imagine that canceling the largest breeding program and moving its birds (but not its funding) to other locations will have anything less than a disastrous effect on the species. And all for a measly $1.5 million per year. Not only that, but migratory whooping crane populations nest in areas that are extremely vulnerable to climate-change-related flooding and storms. President Trump has proposed a 15 percent budget cut on the USGS, including huge slashes in climate research.

During our first chat, before anybody knew the program would be shut down, I asked Olsen what he’d do with an unlimited budget. He laughed and said he’d never thought about it. “Usually we're scrimping to keep things moving along,” he said.

        Whooping Crane. Grus Americana. Adult Male. John J. Audubon

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