Whooping Cranes and Hope

Victoria Cummings of Teachings of the Horse forwarded a link to the New York Times article by Jon Mooallem about Whooping Crane migration:


Ken’s brother sent me a different article about them from his local Florida newspaper. Both describe the incredible journey these birds have made from the brink of extinction, though they are still holding on by a wing and a prayer. Literally. And the wing is an ultralight aircraft.

The Whooping Crane eggs are hatched in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and then the chicks are sent to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin where they are tended by humans dressed in long white robes who feed them with Whooping Crane puppet heads to prevent the the birds from imprinting on humans. By August, the human “parents” teach them how to fly and prepare them to migrate to southern climes. Whooping Cranes do not migrate instinctively. If the parent cranes are not around to show the chicks the way, or even to go at all, they stay where they are. Mooallem’s article describes the elaborate chain of ultralight planes and volunteers and secret crane hiding places that have been developed to carve the migration track into the birds’ brains. It is only needed once. After that, they get it and fly back in the spring on their own, this time able to fly at higher elevations than the ultralight planes are capable of, and catching the thermals for long distance, low energy soaring.

The author writes about “conservation-reliant species,” which is wildlife reintroduced into its original habitat but that will likely not survive without continued human intervention that caused its near extinction in the first place. We cannot carve out a chunk of habitat and put it aside and then and walk away to pour the congratulatory champagne.

When I read this on-going saga of the cranes and the people who are working so hard to save them, I have to sit back in amazement. These men and women and their families are dedicating their lives to a species that may or may not survive in the long run. The Whooping Cranes are the poster birds for conservation-reliant species.

The words of a woman who once wrote me in response to one of my published articles about nature plague me. She said: “These are the end times,” and mourned on about how wildlife and wild places are disappearing from the earth forever, but also how grateful she was to be of an advanced age because she would be gone before the worst of it.

It was a depressing note. You are a sad woman, I thought, and you’re wrong. In a cleaning frenzy before a house move, I threw the note away. But that sentence is stuck in my brain. If we are now teaching birds to fly and to migrate, if we are creating and maintaining “conservation-reliant species,” I wonder if she might not have a point.

When I hold that dreary thought up against the efforts of these people who dedicate their lives to holding on to a species against all odds of long-term survival, I wonder about the energy behind it. They do not bow to the long term hopelessness or wallow in the very real possibility that the Whooping Cranes will probably never stand on their own again as a species, but plan and organize and sacrifice and every year fly their noisy machines before of a flock of five foot birds to lead them to a tomorrow that might never happen.

Are their efforts are ultimately futile? Or does this dogged refusal to quit signify a dim light in a very dark tunnel that there is something more to the human spirit than ruining everything in its path?

This entry was posted in conservation-reliant species, end times, hope, migration, Whooping Cranes. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whooping Cranes and Hope

  1. That is an amazing story. As for the note the woman wrote you it is sad and depressing to think most of nature will disappear in the future. I’d like to have hope that people will wake up to the reality it might happen and take action now to insure that it doesn’t. Without the animals and wilderness to keep the natural order of things balanced, I’m afraid we have nothing to look forward to for future generations.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Heartrending and fascinating stuff – thanks for sharing, Di. I think it’s all too easy, especially these days, to fall into that desultory “end times” type of thinking; the kind of thinking that fosters inaction because really, why take action if it’s not going to make any difference? It’s a slippery slope, my friend. Try to keep the spark of hope alive. I feel certain that whatever reason and logic tells them, many of the crane people nurture an ember of hope that some day, young whooping cranes will be taught migration routes by their parents, rather than by humans in white robes and ultralights. – Kim

  3. I’m an optimist, so I’m going to support the last question that you ask so wisely in this excellent post. We’re all in this together, whether we’ve got wings, hooves or opposable thumbs. So, I think it’s an incredible sign of hope that these people are willing to go to these lengths to save a species. Now, if we can only do it for the polar bears too……

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