My daughter, Emily, and I used to visit the International Crane Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and later worked there briefly as volunteers. We were fascinated, as were millions of people by the work of George Archibald and Ron Sauey to save endangered crane species, especially the whooping crane, from extinction. With only thirty known whooping cranes left in the world, it became crucial to breed Tex, a female crane in captivity. Trouble was, she was imprinted on humans from an early age and had no interest in flirting, much less mating, with her own kind. But George she liked.
So they would dance.
During mating season, George got up every morning and walked with Tex over a grassy hill of the Crane Foundation. She was, in her mind anyway, his crane wife, (also the name of a popular folk tale in Japan). The whooper was always delighted to see him. Together they would do deep knee bends and flap their appendages in the brisk Wisconsin air. Whooping cranes are four to five feet tall and have six to eight feet wing spans. Tex could hold her own with Dr. Archibald! The couple danced each spring for three years. Eventually, George’s assistant was able to artificially inseminate the bird as her attention was on George. George Archibald kept Tex company day after day and, like in the Japanese folk tale, his “crane wife” returned the favor. She laid a fertile egg! The egg hatched into a chick named Gee Whiz that carried on Tex’s genetic line.
Though whooping cranes now number in the hundreds, they are still rare and endangered. You can see wild cranes in the wetlands of Wisconsin and you can see cranes of all fifteen species at the International Crane Foundation.
People over the centuries have no doubt observed the way newly hatched birds sometimes bond with humans. Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) specialized in studying this behavior known as imprinting. Working with greylag geese, he stayed with some hatching eggs until the goslings emerged from their shells so that he was the first animate object they saw. The goslings attached to him as if he were their mother, following him all around.
Emily’s fiancé, Alex, had a similar experience with one of their geese on their Duck Duck Goose Farm on Whidbey Island. One spring day Alex heard a peeping in the grass a short distance from the nesting area of the geese. He found a tiny hatchling, cold and wet, and wondered how he got separated from his mother. When Alex returned the little guy to his mom, she pushed him away. As Alex put it, he “shopped” the gosling around to the other geese moms and none would take him.
So Alex took the fluff ball inside the house, dried him off, and fed him. Once he warmed up, the little goose kept chirping for attention, so Alex turned on some music to try to calm him down. When a piece by Amadeus Mozart started to play, the gosling was entranced and peaceful. So Alex named him Mozart.
After that, Mozart liked being with humans and had to be babysat at all times. In fact, on Mother’s Day, Emily showed up for our celebration at my house, handed me the fluffy, peeping baby, and said, “Happy Mother’s Day!” He was my first grandchild, as it were. I tended to him while she and Alex cooked a nice dinner. At the Greenbank Pantry and Deli, you can see where Mozart’s image is painted (by our daughter Steph Terao) under the store sign on the side of the building. He’s now the mascot of the deli where Emily and Alex work, because he spent so much time in the yard there while they set up their new business.
This past spring, one-year-old Mozart bonded with a Roman tufted goose and she laid a nest full of eggs! Their offspring imprinted on their parents and followed them all over the farm. Even though Mozart is an excellent father and well-adjusted gander now, he still greets Alex and Emily with a big spread of his wings, happy to see them.
As one of my mentors, Paula Underwood, used to say, what may we learn from this?
From George and Tex, I am reminded to dance. Sometimes it’s more than fun and exercise; it can be a bonding experience and help continue the species!
Perhaps there is a warning in imprinting: don’t follow every animate object that catches your eye or soothes your vulnerabilities. It is disturbing to know that the Austrian Konrad Lorenz was an active member of the Nazi party during WWII. With that in mind, the charming photographs of him with lines of devoted ducks or geese behind him might conjure up the kick step march of German soldiers saluting Hitler. If someone appeals to our instincts and takes advantage of our innocence, we may be recruited as devoted followers. This is not usually done with our best interests at heart.
What about Mozart? He found no kindness in the nest as a gosling, but due to human kindness became an attentive friend and parent himself. When given a chance, we can fly higher than our upbringing and origins. With fluffiness and fortitude, we bring smiles to those in the heart of an island.