They say the first word out of a baby humanoid’s mouth is “Mommy”, (although for those born in the 60’s, it was “Far out!”) But it’s not really. It’s “Mine”!, which after a few years of practiced articulation morphs into, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours, is mine”! Then after a bunch more years of self serving enlightenment it becomes “Good fences make good neighbors”!
Life is about territories. If you doubt any of this, just begin your day listening to world news. “Last night, a fun time was had by all in Syria.” After all, it was Charles Darwin who wrote the first draft of “Lord of the Flies” and it was the Eleventh Commandment that stated “If thou findest thou self in a sandbox, be damn sure thou has the biggest shovel”. It’s the human condition and is likely to remain so until we learn to crawl out of our skin and molt.
Same with crane chicks. And that should be no surprise. I mean, after all, cranes were on the earth tens of millions of years before humans ever crawled out of the primordial ooze screaming, “Who’s your daddy!” In the wild, the mama crane lays two eggs, which hatch but usually only one chick survives, having out competed the other for food and parental attention. The majority of biologists who study cranes have yet to hear the words, “Hey… I’ll split it with ya!” ring out from a nest and those who have had to change their medications.
Our reintroduction technique requires the unnatural… the combining of crane chicks into groups or cohorts for practicality and efficiency. This requires socialization and group therapy. Team building. The binding mechanism of every team, crane or human, is the chain of command better known as the pecking order. This establishment of individual dominance, one chick over the other, is more certainty than mystery and probably begins with the genetic stew which fills each and every egg. Once this glue of acceptance and understanding has been applied and cured, the team moves on to the next step; the singing of the “One for all and all for one” song. For our little band of eight musketeers, it’s “us against the world”…. a collective “Mine”!
Enter sub-adults #4 and #5-12. These two St. Marks pen alumna left Wisconsin and flew back here to their old stomping grounds several weeks before our arrival. They spent their days blissfully foraging the salt flats and marsh around the pen area and roosting on the familiar pen oyster bar most nights. Nice and quiet. Just the usual suspects; egrets, ibis, heron, a few ducks and the occasional raccoon. “Mine!” Then the chicks arrived and were placed in the top-netted pen until the completion of health checks and banding.
Meanwhile, adult Whooping cranes #11 and #15-09 flew in for a visit. After all, it was their old stomping grounds also. But before they could yell “Mine”!, #4 and #5 chased them off THEIR territory and away to some place over the horizon. What made this incident even more interesting was the fact that #11 and #15 appeared to be much larger than #4 and #5, proving with scientific certainty that size doesn’t matter after all. Then, when the door of the top-netted pen finally flew open, each chick took a long swig from a bottle of “Whoop-ass” and chased #4 and #5 out of the pen. “Mine!”
Since then, a kind of truce has formed. The chicks have graciously allowed #4 and #5 to remain in the pen, as long as they acknowledge complete chick dominance, give way in any and all situations and tolerate the occasional burst of aggression from each and every chick as they reinforce the new order of things. “Ok, ok…..it’s all yours’! Just lighten up on those beaks would ya!” shouted the big boys.
Juvenile Whooping crane #4-13 puts the run to sub-adult crane #4-12
They are even permitted to roost at night with the chicks on the oyster bar. Like they say, birds that sleep together stay together. Perhaps their easy acceptance of their fate is grounded, in a crane sort of way, in the knowledge that it is, after all, lonely at the top. Hopefully, mutual benefit will result from this arrangement. The young will learn from the experience of the older, though if the human experience is any indication, this may be wishful thinking.
Predator identification and avoidance is one potential benefit. (That is, of course, unless the predator walks on two legs and carries a gun. Then it’s all up to the Judge.) And what’s good and not so good on the Marsh Menu. But this project is nothing, if not an ambitious experiment and perhaps as the days pass and the chicks learn their life lessons, we will too.
If we do learn anything, we’ll share it with you. Promise!
(Tune in tomorrow for some additional photos!)