What would you sacrifice?
We know humans have had a devastating effect on the environment –
there isn’t a part of the planet that doesn’t show signs of human
interference. The question is, how far would each of us be prepared
to go in order to save a species or allow an environment to remain
wild? What would we personally be willing to sacrifice?
Our story centres around the Whooping Crane, an imposing white bird
standing 5 feet high and boasting a wingspan of over seven feet. By
1941 the number of Whooping Cranes in the US had fallen to a
perilous 15 birds. The crane was declared endangered in 1967 and
various conservation efforts began in the 70’s. One project
involved substituting Sandhill Crane eggs with Whooping Crane eggs
and although some of the birds learned to migrate, they would not
mate with cranes of their own species due to their early
Joe Duff and Bill Lishman pioneered a method of teaching young
cranes new migratory routes by having them follow an ultralight
aircraft – their organisation, “Operation Migration”, raises birds
from hatchlings until they are a year old and ready for the
migration flight. It is vital at all stages of the crane’s captive
life that they stay wild and not habituate to humans, and their
carers are always dressed in white crane suits, even when flying
The group was involved with a project to establish a wild flock of
Whooping Cranes. The cranes successfully migrated to Florida, and
were initially housed in a release pen at a wildlife refuge near
Tampa, in their favoured coastal wetland/saltmarsh habitat.
The pens, while safely fenced, have no top covering so eventually
the cranes realise they can fly out and they gradually disperse to
start their new independent lives.
In 2007 a pair of cranes raised the first wild-born baby since the
last nest had been found in 1878. During the winter this “First
Family” moved to a new area, a perfect crane habitat wetland. The
only problem was that the wetland was in the middle of a housing
development and the marsh was in someone’s backyard.
An additional problem was that the residents of the property had
several bird-feeders strung up around the garden and the cranes
were finding very easy pickings.
Naturally the conservationists were concerned. Six cranes from
their project had already been shot by vandals and they were
desperate to keep the birds as far away from humans as possible.
They were able to track the exact position of the First Family to
a property belonging to a Ms Clarice Gibbs and sent a couple of
staff members down to Florida to knock on the door, explain the
situation to Clarice and ask that the feeders be taken down.
Clarice refused. She would not remove the feeders. She also didn’t
want them fenced off. It all got a bit nasty. It was intimated that
she was a “crazy bird-lady”.
After hearing of the story, New York Times journalist Jon Mooallem
was intrigued as to Clarice’s motives and made a trip to Florida to
learn more. He found Clarice somewhat distracted and struggling
with the chronology of the events and what had happened when. What
she told him next changed his ideas about the story altogether.
Clarice apologised and explained that it was really hard for her to
piece together what had happened around that time. She was living
in the house with her husband of over fifty years who was in the
late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. They were pretty much spending
their time hanging out at the house waiting for his life to end.
They sat for hours on the back stoep drinking lemonade and watching
the birds visiting the feeders.
As with most Alzheimer’s sufferers, Clarice’s husband was
disappearing, little bit by little bit, until he was mostly not
there. But when he was on the stoep and a bird or group of birds
flew in to the feeders, suddenly, from wherever he had been in his
head, he would be back, pointing out the bird to Clarice and saying
“Look babe, there’s the hummingbird!”.
When the Whooping Cranes appeared, big and white and wild, that
really got his attention. Clarice would see a happiness in his eyes
and his old smile. She would see the man she used to know and feel
happy that he was happy. To her it was a sort of miracle to see the
cranes and have her husband react quite normally when he was no
longer responding to much else around him.
So when the crane people showed up and asked her to take the bird
feeders down, she said no.
This is the dilemma:
Clarice would like the cranes to keep visiting because it is only
in those few minutes that she gets to see and interact with her
husband in a normal way.
On the other hand, her feeding the birds could lead to their
habituation to humans and their possible demise.
The conservationists had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and
devoted a huge amount of time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until
the bird was a year old, to get it back to the wild to help save
Clarice maintained that she understood the need to not interfere
with the cranes. She kept her distance, she said. Should she be
asked to give up a glimpse at her husband for the sake of the
It’s not as if most of us go around personally slaughtering birds
or felling rainforests, but we tend to put our own personal
requirements over and above anything else, including wildlife.
Which is why the environment is in such danger from us.
Clarice was being asked to give up her husband in order to save a
bird species. If we were all Clarices, would there be much hope for
Source: Radiolab podcast 24 July 2014
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Barry Blomkamp Nd. Bsc (UL)
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