The Man Who Saves Cranes

At forty years and counting, celebrated ornithologist George Archibald’s global crusade to protect cranes still has the wind beneath its wings.

Last night George Archibald was awarded the $100,000 Lufkin Prize from National Audubon in recognition of his long career in conservation. It’s Archibald, as much as anyone, who is responsible for the whooping crane’s long, slow climb back from the brink of extinction. A pivotal moment in that return can be traced back 37 years, to an individual whooping crane going through an identity crisis.

It was the spring of 1976, and Tex the whooping crane was confused. She thought she was human. Which was no surprise, since she had been hanging out with humans since the time she hatched at the San Antonio Zoo. In science speak, Tex had “imprinted,” a perfectly normal behavior common among birds when they are reared by people. Trouble was, Tex’s mix-up was getting in the way of important science.

Whooping cranes were in dire trouble. The remaining population was well below 100 birds. Tex’s genes could play an important role maintaining some genetic diversity in the increasingly small whooping crane population, if she would breed in captivity.

Her captors just wanted Tex to live a happy crane life—pair with a mate, build a nest, have some chicks. But, no. Tex was having none of that.

So ornithologist George Archibald stepped in. That is, the Cornell Ph.D. graduate decided he would have to woo the whooping crane. Archibald’s logic was simple. If Tex fell for him—or, in his words, “formed a pair bond”—it would trigger ovulation, and then his colleagues could artificially inseminate her.

Archibald was committed to making it work. “When she arrived, I put my bed in her house and slept there a month,” he told The New Yorker in a 1982 interview. “I talked to her all the time. As the spring advanced, I began to dance, and she responded. Dancing is how whooping cranes initiate mating. It worked. We built a nest together out of corncobs and hay. She laid an egg, but the semen we used was poor and the egg was infertile. Then next year, we went through the same routine, and this time the egg was fertile. I was so excited! I felt like a father. I could hear the chick peeping in the shell, and then it died just before hatching. What a blow! We tried again in 1979, but the egg was soft-shelled. In 1980, I was too busy, and a Japanese ornithologist took my place, but she didn’t like him. Last year Michael Putnam, our head aviculturist, danced with her for seven days a week for two months, but it was no use. She shied away from him. She won’t settle for anyone but me.”

After the interview, Archibald traveled to Washington D.C., where he picked up some frozen whooping crane semen, then headed back to Baraboo, Wisconsin, the headquarters of the International Crane Foundation, which he co-founded with college classmate Ron Sauey in 1973.

Archibald returned to his work with Tex, pirouetting around her enclosure, doing deep knee bends, flapping his arms, jumping up and down. Until finally, on June 3, 1982, Tex hatched a chick that was named Gee Whiz.

As word spread, Archibald and the cranes became a sensation. Johnny Carson even called and invited him to be a guest on his show. Archibald was thrilled about how things were going. Until he received a phone call shortly before taking the stage on the Carson show. There was bad news: During the night a pack of raccoons had broken into the bird enclosures, and killed Tex. When he shared the sad news with Carson, everyone in the studio gasped. “All across the country a I think a good portion of the 22 million people did the same,” recounted Archibald, “and I think whooping cranes likely got a lot more sympathy through Tex’s death than from her dance.”

The good news was that the plight of the whoopers gained prominence in the public eye, and Tex’s genes were successfully passed to the next generation in Gee Whiz. The captive breeding program continued on, leading to a major turnaround in the status of whooping cranes. And with Tex’s wind at its wings, the International Crane Foundation expanded to work around the globe, employing hundreds of conservationists working to protect the world’s remaining cranes and their habitat.

Today Archibald continues his crane conservation work in North Korea, Africa, North America, and beyond, even as new challenges arise from sea-level rise, wind energy development, habitat destruction, and drought.

In accepting the Lufkin Prize last night, Archibald shared the spotlight with the many crane conservationists he has worked with at the International Crane Foundation, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

There was another occasion on Archibald’s mind as well: Gee Whiz’s 30th birthday. Tex’s little chick has grown to father many offspring, including a female that this year became the first of her lineage to breed in the wild. “I call her my great grandchick,” jokes Archibald. “She winters with my granddaughter on Goose Lake, in Indiana. I think about them a lot.”