The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 50-year effort to raise endangered whooping cranes comes to an end

Animal care technician Kathryn Nassar wears a costume and holds a crane puppet as she interacts with a 2-month-old whooping crane at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Each spring for 12 years, Paula Wang began a temporary position at a government lab in a suburb north of Washington. She was required to remain silent while working and to wear a white suit and hood. The mission was not top-secret, but Wang felt it was urgent all the same: She had to save an endangered species.

Wang was a volunteer in the job, which involved using puppets to feed newborn whooping cranes, one of North America’s largest and rarest birds. As the chicks grew closer to their eventual five-foot height, she would escort them on walks and swims. The goal was to make the birds strong but not used to humans; to make them able to survive in the wild, even if they did not come from it.

This effort took place at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., which for 51 years has been the epicenter of a slow-going effort to rescue the snow-hued cranes from the precipice of extinction by breeding and training birds for release. It’s viewed as a model of wildlife conservation, as well as of the sometimes odd approaches such a mission can take.

And now the effort is ending.

Funding for the $1.5 million whooping crane propagation program at Patuxent, part of a broader public-private initiative in the United States and Canada, dries up this month. The U.S. Geological Survey, which runs the center, says the original mission of doing research to create a successful breeding program has been fulfilled. The 75-crane captive flock will be moved to other institutions, and breeding will continue at other sites, including at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and the Calgary Zoo. Officials say they feel confident the species’s recovery will continue.

But the whooping crane program’s end is a profound shift at Patuxent, which does plenty of other research but none so central to its identity. News of the closure stunned employees, some of whom have devoted nearly three decades to the program, as well as volunteers such as Wang, who spent years in an intimate experiment to save birds with 7-foot wingspans, sharp yellow-eyed stares and often crotchety characters.

“My first month there, I was basically spraying down [soiled] carpets. I was going to do anything I could to help out, just to be part of it,” said Wang, a retired high school science teacher. “I’m deeply saddened that it’s leaving.”

Patuxent’s program began in 1966 with Canus, an injured whooping crane who had been captured on the Canadian tundra and given a name that conveyed two nations’ cooperation to save the species. At the time, just 42 birds remained anywhere. Canus and whoopers hatched from 12 eggs collected from wild nests formed the nucleus of a breeding flock intended to be “a repository for genetic diversity,” said John French, the research center’s director, who led the program for a dozen years.

The program’s mission broadened in 2001 to include reintroduction. Patuxent would be maternity ward and preschool — a place where chicks would receive training to take on the natural world.

This required some unusual techniques. There were more eggs than birds to raise them, so during each spring’s hatching season, staff and volunteers became surrogate parents for wobbly, 5-inch-tall chicks. To prevent the cranes from becoming tame, the humans donned crane costumes, guided their charges with crane hand-puppets and never spoke a word around them. For several years, part of the training involved teaching some whoopers to follow an ultralight aircraft that led a reintroduced flock on its annual migration from Wisconsin to Florida. The journey was obsessively followed by school groups and whooping crane fans, in person and online.

The ultralight project ended in 2015 once federal wildlife officials concluded that something about this interventionist approach — the disguises, the planes — wasn’t working. Although the wild population had grown to about 500, the reintroduced flocks had proved to be poor at parenting and unable to fledge chicks in the wild. Just why remains unclear, but French said researchers suspect the problem might have been the “bizarre way” the birds were raised. The breeding programs have since begun shifting from “costume-rearing” to bird-rearing.

The birds’ enigma is part of what makes them captivating, crane flock manager Brian Clauss said as he stood in the electric-fenced enclosure of a prolific breeding pair named Spike and Shelly — so named because they frequently attacked their own eggs. Spike strutted through the tall grass as if on stilts.

The species doesn’t fit “into an equation,” explained Clauss, who has worked at Patuxent for 27 years. “That’s what’s interesting and frustrating about them to the scientists.”

French said a Patuxent planning process in early 2016 envisioned the end of the breeding program in 10 to 15 years. Word that USGS had decided to cut it far sooner, at the close of this fiscal year, rippled this summer across crane-focused Facebook pages and through bird organizations.

“This is about budget cuts from above, and it is very sad to see,” said Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy. “I would suggest this is a very poor example of a place that the federal government should try to save money.”

Whooping cranes are pretty terrible parents. Are humans to blame?

For his part, French says that Patuxent’s breeding program is no longer about research and that other institutions can keep it going. But he acknowledged its demise as an emotional blow.

All seven full-time employees in the program will be assigned new duties. But “some of those folks have only ever worked on whooping cranes, so it’s going to be kind of existential to them. I don’t want to downplay the personal difficulty that some people feel,” he said. He added: “The thing I wonder about the most is how Patuxent will think about itself without the whooping cranes.”

Today, all 500 or so of the world’s wild whooping cranes belong to one of four flocks. The largest and only self-sustaining flock migrates from Canada to Texas. The Wisconsin-Florida flock and two nonmigratory reintroduced groups, in Louisiana and Florida, grew out of the Patuxent program. The Louisiana contingent includes a bird Wang knew two summers ago as “21.”

First he had a bad cold. Then he suddenly had trouble walking. It looked as if 21 might need to be euthanized, so staff asked volunteers to help make him happy and take him outdoors. “You could just see the joy in this bird” when he would step into the grass, Wang recalled. He ended up surviving.

“It was hard all the time to not talk or laugh,” Wang said of her costumed interaction with chicks. “You kind of say to yourself, ‘Oh, good job! I’m so proud of you!’ But you couldn’t really show anything to them.”

Ken Lavish’s favorite is 817. The genetically rare bird stayed at Patuxent for breeding, so people didn’t wear costumes around him. Lavish, a retiree who began volunteering at the center 13 years ago, was assigned to “babysit” 817 when he was a chick in 2008. This meant sitting in the bird’s pen and keeping him company in the sweltering month of July.

“But I felt great,” said Lavish, who’s on the board of Friends of Patuxent, a nonprofit group that supports the research center and surrounding refuge. “Cranes will come up and kind of peck you lightly with their beak, and he kept doing that: pecking my watch, my wedding ring.”

The bird became an adult who gets aggressive during breeding season. Staff and volunteers hold out a broom so he will attack it and not them.

Lavish doesn’t blame the bird; 817, he said, “is my guy.”

The last of 25 chicks joining the wild flocks this year will be shipped out by the end of September. Shelly and Spike will head to a Florida zoo. Other adults will go to breeding centers or other zoos over the coming year.

“It sinks in more every day,” said Clauss, who will turn to Patuxent’s other research programs. “I grew up here.”

French said he’s not sure what the center’s flagship program now will be, but he listed several other important projects. There’s work being done on wildlife population measurement, coastal ecology and wildlife toxicology. He’ll miss the cranes, though — “a classic charismatic megafauna, like a whale or a bear or a cheetah.”

For several days this summer, Wang said, staff and volunteers would tear up when they’d see each other.

“It’s not only losing the birds; it’s sort of losing our connection to each other,” Wang said. “Because our connection was really around these birds.”

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