The Crane That Fell in Love With Her Human Keeper
Walnut is a white-naped crane that lives in a Virginia endangered species breeding facility. She’s 23 years-old, was raised by humans, and developed a reputation for murdering potential mates. But Walnut eventually found a good match in bird keeper Chris Crowe, a 42 year-old human who she has bonded with. Crowe, as part of his duties at the zoo, has embraced his role as Walnut’s mate in order to inseminate her with semen from a male crane.
That summer, however, Crowe noticed that Walnut seemed interested in, well, him. When Crowe stopped by her yard, she would bow her head and raise her wings — motions that Crowe now recognizes as the first moves of a mating dance. “At first, I thought that she was just excited to see me,” Crowe says. “But then I’d see the other pairs doing the same things, and it kind of dawned on me.” Crowe accepted Walnut’s invitation to dance. Though he felt a little silly, he bobbed his head when Walnut bobbed hers, and raised and lowered his arms like wings. The two circled each other, and sometimes Walnut would make a loud, trumpeting call — the beginning of the white-naped crane love duet. If no one was around, Crowe would try to do the male part of the song — making a Homer Simpson-like “woo-hoo” — but Walnut never found his efforts satisfactory.
As the weather cooled, so did Walnut’s ardor. But in the spring, Walnut began greeting her keeper with bows again. This gave Crowe an idea: If Walnut thought he was her mate, maybe Crowe could make that year’s artificial insemination less stressful for both of them. “If we could get her able to do it without catching her, there’s no stress, no risk of injury,” Crowe says. “It’s much better for us and for the crane.” Lynch agreed. “As far as we knew, it had never been done before, but it seemed like a good thing to try,” he recalls.
Walnut no longer needs to be inseminated to help save her species but since cranes mate for life, her relationship with Crowe continues.
Like an old couple, Crowe and Walnut have fallen into a comfortable routine. After “mating” with Crowe, Walnut will often lay unfertilized eggs. Crowe replaces them with fake ones; the real ones would rot and get eaten by crows, which would prompt Walnut to lay more. The bird then spends long hours sitting on the dummy eggs, so Crowe helps her out whenever he gets the chance. “I go over and stand near the nest and I say, ‘You take a break.’ And she’ll wander off. She’ll go down into the creek and take a bath. Then she walks back after 15 or 20 minutes, and she’s ready to sit back on the nest again.”
Though he does his best to not be a deadbeat dad, Crowe knows he falls short of crane standards. These are creatures that, once paired up, rarely lose sight of their partner; Crowe, in contrast, disappears every weekend. But despite Crowe’s shortcomings, Walnut loves him unconditionally. In fact, this 12-pound bird’s capacity for boundless affection sets a standard that we all could learn from, Crowe says. “The ideal partner doesn’t exist. You have to accept certain things that people can’t change,” he explains. “I mean, she puts up with me even though I can’t dance or sing.”
This entry originally appeared at kottke.org/21/10/the-crane-that-fell-in-love-with-her-human-keeper, and may be a summary or abridged version.