Mom and Pop Conservation
Sometimes people grow weary with concern for the environment and natural resources. As bad news seems to outweigh good, a person might wish for a fairy godmother to appear-if not to solve problems, then at least to assure that solutions can be created. This issue of the Volunteer brings you an enchanting tale-the uplifting and improbable journey of the whooping crane. Authors Greg Breining and Joan Galli respectively recount stories of this endangered species and of one bird in particular.
Part of what's fascinating about the fall and rise of whooping cranes, as well as the fate of other wildlife, is the behavior of people. Our human history of wildlife exploitation and conservation encompasses ordinary and extraordinary actions, and extremes of greed and generosity. Consider, for example, the history of the founding of the Audubon Society.
For centuries men had been sticking feathers in their caps to display their prominence in society. By the 1600s women had picked up the fashion. By the late 19th century, a time of keen interest in nature, European and American women were wearing hats lavishly bedecked with feathers, wings, and whole bodies of wild birds. An ornithologist in New York City in 1886 counted 40 native species on three-fourths of the 700 hats he observed.
To supply milliners with the popular plumes of herons and egrets, hunters found large rookeries in the Florida Everglades. There they shot and skinned adult birds, leaving behind carcasses and sometimes eggs or chicks. When news of the harvest for hats reached Boston, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall were appalled. The two socialite cousins decided to marshal their friends and acquaintances to form a club for the conservation of birds. Tea parties provided a platform for convincing nearly 1,000 women to give up their feathered hats and join in promoting bird protection. Thus in 1896 began the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the nation's longest-lived bird-conservation group.
During the next six years, Audubon societies formed in 26 other states. Observation and study of birds gained popularity. Yet, by the turn of the century, market hunting for all kinds of purposes had decimated many animal populations. Birds such as the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon had become extinct. And many other species, including the whooping crane, had all but disappeared. As a result, in 1899 the U.S. Congress enacted the Lacey Act. This landmark conservation law provided protection to endangered, threatened, and migratory nongame animals by prohibiting hunting, transporting, selling, and possessing these species or their parts or products-including feathers.
Today's big threat to species is loss of habitat. "Rookery Blues" in this issue illustrates that point. Ironically, even as the rare whooping crane appears on a refuge just north of the Twin Cities, the common great blue heron seems to be having trouble finding nesting places in the metro area. And once again humans play a prominent role.
As "Whooping Revival" reports, humans are playing a seemingly preposterous part in the bid to repopulate whooping cranes. Using puppets and costumes, people pretend to be parent birds. The trick begins with the eggs. The caretakers play recordings of airplane engines and crane calls to the incubating eggs. Then, the moment the chicks hatch, "Parent Bird" hand puppets pop up to greet them. The youngsters learn to follow a costumed Mama or Papa first on the ground, then into the air.
In the fall crane-impostor pilots fly an ultralight plane to lead the young birds on their first migration to Florida. On the two-month-long trip, a ground crew sets up rest stops. When the pilot turns off the Parent Bird recording and takes a nose dive, the costumed ground crew turns on the call for the cranes to come eat and rest. In the morning the pilot swoops down, beckoning the birds back into the air.
Playful though it may seem, the journey is perilous. Hazards include power lines and tall buildings. And the young birds could stray off course at any time. In The Christian Science Monitor, one pilot said he "worried about the birds' well-being every minute" of the way.
No doubt, such constant parenting is tiring. Yet conservation work often calls for a kind of parental concern. And today's whooping cranes are astonishing evidence that it can pay off.
Kathleen Weflen, editor