February 22, 2024

The bird that took a human mate

The early 2000s were an excellent time for romance. J. Lo married Marc Anthony. Vanessa Carlton vowed to walk a thousand miles for love. Ryan Gosling kissed Rachel McAdams in the pouring rain. And in Front Royal, Virginia, Chris Crowe waved his arms to court Walnut, a five-foot-tall white-necked crane.

Walnut was a graceful, strong-willed bird, albeit a bit antisocial. That year, she had rejected the affection of the males of her species and instead bonded with Crowe, her keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Walnut’s love for Crowe lasted for 20 years until she died last month at the age of 42. There was, of course, a strange connection; it is rare for a female crane to choose a human mate. But it is not without precedent. This unusual relationship could save the endangered species of Walnut; something like this has happened before.

Nearly all cranes, including the white-naped variety of Walnut, mate for life. Once a woman takes a lover, she never looks back. This fact has cemented the crane as a symbol of enduring devotion throughout the world, and given it a role in sacred myth. In India, the death of a crane inspired the writing of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The silhouettes of cranes are woven into wedding kimonos and recreated from origami paper. A stately bronze crane guards the entrance to Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Every crane looks like it belongs in the late Cretaceous period, but perhaps none more so than the white-naped species. The bird looks remarkably like a dinosaur, with red, scaly skin around its amber eyes and a beak as long and sharp as Crocodile Dundee’s knife. She uses the knife beak mainly for stabbing the ground and spearing larvae and insects for lunch.

Cranes are the longest-flying birds in the world – and also the most endangered of all bird families, due to widespread destruction of the wetlands and prairies where they live. Eleven of the world’s fifteen species, including the rare whooping crane of North America, are threatened or endangered. Only about 5,000 members of the Walnut species are still found in the wild in China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan; Many spend the winter in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where it is usually quiet and devoid of people.

Walnut joined the Wisconsin International Crane Foundation in 1981, which provides a kind of genetic repository for crane species while working to protect land and flight paths for them. Not much is known about the origins of Walnut’s parents, other than that they were both taken from the wild somewhere in Asia and brought to the United States. Those wild genes made Walnut’s DNA brand new to American zoos, and therefore extremely valuable. That made it important for her to reproduce, to help diversify the gene pool of her captive species.

The problem was that Walnut didn’t like other cranes. She loved people. At the foundation in Baraboo, she had a social bond with her caregivers, which can happen when a human is the first living thing to see a baby crane, Rich Beilfuss, the president and CEO of the ICF, told me. “The bird essentially sees what it thinks it looks like.” That means Walnut may have seen himself as a human, or at least as something other than a crane. Whenever ICF caretakers brought around a male crane, Walnut would spread her wings and attack her lover, threatening his life. So in 2004, Walnut was sent to the Smithsonian, where experts had more experience with assisted reproduction techniques, including artificial insemination.

Crowe started working at the Virginia center a few months after Walnut arrived, and he immediately knew she was special. Walnut was not wary of caretakers as other cranes were. Instead of retreating, “she came right up to people and made threats,” he said. She shook her head and pecked at unknown people. Sometimes she even let out a deep growl. But Walnut didn’t treat Crowe that way. She seemed to like him.

“I think it helped that I was a little quiet,” Crowe told me. He kept his distance and moved slowly when he entered her exhibit to clean or bring food. He offered little mice, mealworms and peanuts, which Walnut especially loved. After a few months, the crane was close enough to Crowe that he could stroke her feathers, and eventually she began nodding her head and flapping her wings in his direction, which Crowe recognized as the standard crane courtship dance. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he followed her lead. ‘She nodded her head, so I did too. She blurted, I blurted,” he said. If Walnut picked up a blade of grass or a flower and threw it towards him, he found a flower and immediately threw it back. She grew tall and sprinted around the exhibit, flapping wildly, and Crowe tried to keep up.

Ultimately, Crowe was able to artificially inseminate Walnut using a syringe and a semen sample from a male white-naped crane. As a reward, he gave her a mouse and some verbal praise, and they went on with their day. Sure, it was all weird, “but it was such a job,” Crowe said. He knew how precious her genes were. His plan, he said, “was to deal with this behavior,” rather than treating it as something unnatural. (Cranes, like other animals, can be pinned for artificial insemination, but it is safer and certainly more pleasant for the bird if they are not.)

The relationship was also educational: Getting so close to Walnut allowed Crowe to minutely observe her every behavior. He could watch her preen and learn all her subtle behavioral cues and territorial warnings. He watched her catch crayfish in the stream that ran through her exhibit and snap the claws off before swallowing them.

For the next twenty years, Crowe spent almost every day with Walnut, observing her, giving her treats and bringing her toys to play with. “I went to visit her and we walked around, dancing when she wanted to dance,” he said. Every time he mowed the grass in her exhibit, Walnut would follow close behind him and devour the scurrying insects. In winter, while other birds waded through piles of snow, Walnut insisted that Crowe blaze a trail for her. Every spring the couple repeated the courtship dance and artificial insemination process. Over the course of her long life, Walnut laid eight fertile eggs, seven of which hatched new white-necked babies of her species; her first chick, now an 18-year-old female named Brenda, still lives at the Front Royal facility.

The kind of bond Walnut and Crowe shared was unusual, but it had happened at least once before. In 1976, George Archibald, the Canadian founder of the ICF, bonded with Tex, the last female crane in captivity at the foundation. Archibald and Tex had a relationship much like that of Crowe and Walnut: when the bird fluttered, her human partner fluttered; when she bobbed, he bobbed too. At the time, the whooping crane was nearly extinct; there were only about fifteen birds left in the wild. But with artificial insemination, Tex would have a total of 180 children and grandchildren. The wild population, combined with the reintroduction of flocks, now stands at about 500. Tex’s relationship with Archibald, Beilfuss explained, is directly responsible for the recovery of the crane population across the country.

The collaboration between Walnut and Crowe could prove just as crucial. Due to habitat destruction, invasive species, water pollution and other factors, the wild population of white-naped cranes is declining and is officially classified as vulnerable. If numbers become seriously low, Walnut’s offspring can be introduced into the wild to replenish the population and save its species.

People have learned several other lessons from Walnut and Crowe’s relationship over the years. Some have told Crowe that the two are an example of acceptance. One person called Walnut a feminist icon, “because she did what she wanted to do and not what was expected of her,” Crowe said. But for the zookeeper, their bond was a reminder for humans to pay a little more attention to their cohabitants on Earth. “Each bird is its own individual with its own thoughts and feelings,” he said. “I like to think I gave her the best life possible. That matters, even if she’s just one bird.”

The average life expectancy for white-naped cranes in captivity is about 15 years, but Walnut lived to almost three times that age. She was ultimately stoic, refusing to eat her favorite mealworms and peanuts, but otherwise showed little sign of suffering. Her final days were difficult, Crowe said, but he stayed with her until the end. On January 31, Walnut died of kidney failure, her partner by her side.

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