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  Field Notes From
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From Author

Jennifer Ackerman





In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Paul Kostyu


 

Cranes

Field Notes From Author
Jennifer Ackerman

Best Worst Quirkiest
    Setting eyes on wild whooping cranes at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin was a thrill for me, particularly seeing these spirited, statuesque birds not in a zoo but in a vast stretch of northern marsh. But even this was topped by a conversation with George Archibald—the man so instrumental in saving the whoopers—in the one-room log cabin of our shared hero, Aldo Leopold.  It was Leopold who put conservation on the map of the American psyche with a beautiful book of essays called A Sand County Almanac published in 1949. It was Leopold's essay in that book, The Marshland Elegy, that ignited Archibald's passion for cranes and my own desire to write. Sitting in the cabin where Leopold wrote his little masterpiece and talking to the man who has led the charge to save cranes around the world was a peak experience.

    I first met George Archibald at the home of Bill Sladen, a colleague of his who directs the Swan Research Program at the Airlie Center in Virginia. Sladen lives in a big, beautiful old house on a hill overlooking two lakes, home to several swans, including a pair of his beloved trumpeters. The dirt road to Sladen's house narrowed as it passed between the two lakes, and I stopped to step out and take in the late afternoon view. When I got out of the car, a honking swan rushed me, stabbing at me with its beak. I jumped back in the car (with some chagrin), rolled up the window, and drove on with my heart pounding. Some bird person I am. Later, when I told the story to Sladen, I learned that the swan was one of the rare trumpeters. Sladen told me that the bird has only one wing (which made me feel even more sheepish), but is still proud and aggressive and likes to charge cars.

    In my research for this story, I discovered that the heroes of bird conservation will go to great lengths on behalf of their chosen species, shuttling eggs back and forth over thousands of miles for captive breeding programs, teaching birds safe migratory routes by flying with them in ultralight planes or hang-gliders. But the award for quirkiest heroic effort has to go to George Archibald.
    Two decades ago there lived a female whooping crane named Tex, possessor of some rare genes.  The crane conservation community hoped to preserve these genes by breeding Tex. But since Tex had been reared by humans and had—in the lingo of the field—imprinted on them, she had no desire to mate with another bird. So in 1982 Archibald moved in with Tex and lived with her for 15 hours a day over six weeks, dancing courtship dances with her at the peak of the breeding season. The effort paid off. Tex laid an egg that was fertilized by artificial insemination, and soon a whooper named Gee Whiz was born.


   


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