Veterinary Care: Suiting up as a Whooping Crane

My job as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) often has its surprises; for example, one time I discovered that some species of frog turn from bright green to dark green as they become anesthestized. Typically the surprises are the interesting and sometimes unbelievable things I learn about animals. But sometimes what I do during the day is not what I thought I’d be doing when I woke up that morning – like wearing a full-size whooping crane costume and spending a day in a field with some lost birds.

A few weeks ago, the DZS bird department was contacted by the International Crane Foundation, which is based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They’d been tracking four yearling whooping cranes that were raised at the foundation and were newbies to the whole migration thing. The cranes had made their way to the Midwest from Florida but were thought to have been blown off course on their way back to Wisconsin by a storm that came across Lake Michigan. It was their first year migrating back on their own – who could blame them?

After locating the birds near a cornfield in Michigan, the staff at the Crane Foundation needed a veterinarian’s health certificate stating that the cranes were healthy enough to travel back to Wisconsin. They reached out to the DZS. I jumped in a car with our curator and associate curator of birds and headed about an hour north of the Detroit Zoo into an area where houses were few and far between and the landscape was mostly farm fields. There, we met up with the staff from the Crane Foundation and witnessed four beautiful juvenile cranes come in for a landing just on the opposite side of the pond from us. Unfortunately, “just on the opposite side of the pond” was about 1,500 feet away, and a determination of good health cannot be made from that distance. The next thing I knew, I was handed a pair of binoculars … and a crane costume. Yes; a crane costume!

You see, whooping cranes are highly endangered, and would in fact be extinct in North America if it weren’t for the captive rearing program headed up by the International Crane Foundation. The goal of the program is to create a sustainable wild population of whooping cranes, and this only works if the crane chicks are reared by “cranes”. Thus, human “parents” will dress up in crane costumes – the human body is covered in white, like the white feathering of the crane, and the human hand holds a replica of a crane head, complete with a functional beak, which teaches the chicks how to “be” a crane.

So on this particular day, I found myself meandering across a cornfield in rural Michigan, stopping to “graze” every few minutes, preen my “feathers” and survey my surroundings alongside my fellow “crane”, one of the Crane Foundation staff members. Not long after we started our way across the field, the four juveniles began to notice us and they took interest. Gradually, they made their way over, two moving through the shallow pond while the other two came around the pond’s perimeter. In less than 30 minutes, I was face to face – or rather, beak to beak – with four amazing whooping cranes. Their beautiful yellow eyes sized me up as I looked for any signs of illness, but I found none. After I’d visited with each crane and felt assured of their health, I simply enjoyed the awe — and surprise — of unexpectedly having the opportunity to spend a few brief moments so close to these incredible birds.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

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