I watch a five-minute video put together by the International Crane Foundation. I imagine doing what they portray, joining a small crew of birders in a hide on the Platte River during the annual migration of millions of birds, including thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Then, I’m urged, lift your binoculars and lo, there’s a bigger bird. It’s a Whooping Crane! When (if?) I go to the Platte River, will I be lucky enough to see a Whooper? The end of the video shows just-released latest Whooping Crane numbers: there are 808 birds in this species, which once was close to being wiped out. Since there are over 800,000 Sandhill Cranes, I guess my chances of seeing a Whooper are one in a thousand. A dream worth having.
Whooping Cranes L3-15 and L5-15 hatched in captivity in Maryland in 2015. At year’s end, they were brought down to Louisiana and released into freedom. Five months later, a man and his young accomplice shot them. They recovered one carcass and cut off its legs in order to remove and hide tracking bands. Now, four years on, the man has been sentenced to parole, community service, a hefty fine, and $75,000 in restitution costs. The International Crane Foundation article on the matter contains four heartbreaking images (of which I use one) of L3-15 and L5-15 in water, in the air, and as a corpse. Such a disturbing tale, one I can’t shake from mind. As the sentencing judge put it: “I think these birds are basically priceless.”
A wondrous bonus of the pandemic lockdown has been a weekly educational webinar series from the International Crane Foundation. You can catch them afterwards via YouTube but I recommend you experience them live (even if, as with me, that means a 2 AM alarm), because they’re given by real-world conservationists and ornithologists and you rarely glean such wisdom. As a small example of the bounties in store, here’s a visual put up by a Chinese field researcher. No doubt thousands of bird experts appreciate just how the migratory birds straddle the world, spreading out to every corner. No doubt coffee table books glorify such barely believable images. But to this amateur, glimpsing such a vista, slapped up on a screen in order to clarify why such-and-such a conservation tactic is needed … wow, feasting upon this revelatory picture was life-changing. I’ve known for a while that, of course, Earth’s birds were here long before the human race. What I hadn’t quite appreciated is how comprehensive their global coverage. There is nowhere on our planet a bird has not flown to!
I’ve just returned from my first genuine expedition to track down and witness Cranes, an exhilarating five days in western Victoria. Here roam the Brolgas, more specifically the southern population. This population is classified as Vulnerable. My desk research had made it clear that we don’t know how many southern Brolgas there are, with estimates ranging from 500 to 1,000. My trip brought home to me that we don’t really know where they are at any one moment.
Contrast that with the map above (from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website), which shows that America’s Whooping Cranes, even more precarious with a classification of Endangered, are tracked minutely. The table reveals that there are, to a great deal of precision, 826 Whooping Cranes. Moreover, the map shows that the Eastern Migratory subsection of those 826, exactly 85 birds, is tracked (via various means) almost exactly. The map gives the locations, logged in the last two months, of about 80 birds (I manually counted them).
What a difference in exactitude and, therefore, in human focus on one species versus another! My mind whirls with the implications.
The topic of animal/bird/insect migration is a hot scientific one and there are plenty of ways for an amateur like me to approach it. After a few promising but unproductive false starts, a friend pointed me to “Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation“, which hit our shelves in April. Author David Barrie is my kind of elucidator: an ex-diplomat and campaigner, he’s a sailing nut cum adventurer and his book “Sextant” tackles human navigation. He writes eloquently and with a surety of control that is intoxicating. Every chapter took me further along towards glimpsing how Cranes, among the half of Earth’s bird species who migrate, might do so.
One thing I needed to understand: bird navigation is not just “wow!”, it’s a lifelong existence-gambling purgatory (call it an adventure if you like, what word we choose depends on our conception). Yes, migration is remarkable, but it’s also a body-depleting, fraught plunge into the unknown each and every time. How a given bird species migrates – from breeding grounds to overwintering grounds – and indeed how an individual bird executes – is something wrought by evolution over untold years.
Each year’s to and fro trips can be fucked up by weather, wind, predators, luck, and of course humankind’s inexorable grabbing of pathways, feeding stops, and destinations.
And the variety of migration tales! For every magazine-friendly whooper “hero” story of a tiny bird that bravely plugs away across land and sea, losing a huge chunk of body weight, to “miraculous” arrivals at the same stop as last year, Barrie relates narratives that contrast and complexify and mystify.
For example, we’re used to birds breeding in an optimum location and then flying south or north to escape the cold. But the murrelet breeds on remote islands across the Pacific, 8,000 kms, and migrates west to the waters of China and Japan.
No other bird is known to undertake a similar east-west migration in the Pacific and why the murrelet does so is a mystery, as indeed is its method of navigation. The researchers think this extraordinary journey may reflect the route the birds took–in the long distant past–as they expanded their range from an original base in East Asia to North America.
Call me easily impressed but here is a once-off migratory path, not taken by any other birds, baked into the murrelet’s genes since antiquity!
I don’t know if you’re aware of the stunning success story of the Whooping Crane? Nearly extinct after World War II, decades of dedicated effort by government agencies and volunteers, in particular George Archibald at the International Crane Foundation (which he founded, take a look at it now!), have given rise to a latest count (from the ICF website) of 849 Whooping Cranes, 163 of whom are in captivity.
A couple of months ago, in the depths of existential despair as a result of events and my own reading, I chanced upon the August Whooping Crane Eastern Population Update from the pen of Crane Analyst Hillary Thompson. This discusses the 86 of the overall 849 Whooping Cranes in a handful of northeastern states, mostly in Wisconsin. Reading the report was a balm soothing my raging heart, a song about the dedication that humankind can show to non-human species, in a sense the best of humankind. Hillary Thompson goes into full details on the year’s 19 wild-hatched chicks, all banded and hence kept track of, and that story struck me as modern-day drama. I found myself affected by the final item in the report, “Mortality or Long-term missing.” Here’s what Hillary records: “9_03 (F) was found dead on 3 July at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau Co, WI. Cause of death appears to be predation.”
Thank you, Hillary. Thank you, ICF. Thank you and thank you.
July 22, yesterday, I announced to myself, an audience of one: I, Andres Kabel, embark on a quest. Roll that word – quest, quest, quest – around your mouth. I’m guessing you taste foreignness. Doesn’t that q-word come across as archaic? Presumptuous? Quests take place in fables, I hear you tell me.
Sigh. A fable could well be the fate of my efforts. But, damn it, that first step I took yesterday was, indeed, my quest.
I am a city boy. The world of nature and I were separate for decades. I came to birding – the insider term for birdwatcher – late in life and, to tell the truth, in terms of quality of birding and knowledge of birds, I am mediocre. But all that makes no difference. I’m on a quest and my quest is to exhaustively learn everything I can about a particular set of birds, to understand them, and to champion them in a hotting-up world that inexorably encroaches on their continued survival.
Let me be more precise. Over the next years, I shall bear witness to our Earth’s fifteen species of Cranes – the Black Crowned Crane, the Black-necked Crane, the Blue Crane, the Brolga, the Demoiselle Crane, the Eurasian Crane, the Grey Crowned Crane, the Hooded Crane, the Red-crowned Crane, the Sandhill Crane, the Sarus Crane, the Siberian Crane, the Wattled Crane, the White-naped Crane, and the Whooping Crane.
The actors in this tale are not just the fifteen Crane species and me, but Earth in the Anthropocene Era, the first epoch in which the human race helps shape the planet at geologic scale. My quest must necessarily ask: what is the physical future on Earth for me and the Cranes? What is my culpability and what should I do?
Come join me. Don’t be at all daunted, you’ll see soon enough how ill equipped I come to my quest. That’s why I need allies, colleagues, and collaborators. You’ll hear more from me over the coming days, months, and years, but in the meantime do drop by for a chat via email, Facebook or Twitter.