How far would you be willing to go to save a species from extinction? For Canadian-born ornithologist Dr. George Archibald, it meant courting a whooping crane named Tex for three years, in the hope of getting her to lay eggs.
At the time, during 1976, Tex was only one of 100 whooping cranes (Grus americana) left in the world, and the only female whooping crane in her home at the San Antonio Zoo, so experts of a young crane breeding program were desperate to get her to produce offspring. But since Tex had been hand-raised in captivity by humans, and thus had been accidentally "imprinted" to believe that she was human, she refused to mate with any male whooping crane.
That's when George Archibald was brought in to work with Tex, to form an unlikely bond with her as her life "mate" (these elegant cranes mate for life with only one partner). Hear him tell this remarkable story:
As Archibald recounts in this 1982 interview with the New Yorker:
When she arrived, I put my bed in her house and slept there for a month. 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.
Archibald's days with Tex began at 5 AM in the mornings, which he remembers as being "exhausting," but Tex eventually formed a strong bond with Archibald, and they then built a nest out of hay and corncobs together, where she laid an egg.
Unfortunately, the artificial insemination of the egg didn't work, and Archibald and his team ended up trying several more times, over the course of three years, to finally have a viable egg. It was harrowing, as the hatchling almost died, but today, "Gee Whiz" (as he is named) survived, and is 33 years old.
Gee Whiz has since fathered many babies, one of which is actually living in the wild. Says Archibald humourously: "I call her my great grandchick. She winters a lot with my granddaughter on Goose Lake, in Indiana. I think about them a lot."
But there is a sad part to this story: just before going on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show to tell Tex's story, Archibald was told that raccoons had broken into the compound and killed Tex. It was a tragic turn of events, but Archibald -- who is co-founder of the International Crane Foundation -- has since continued his work in crane conservation all over the world. He's pioneered some interesting techniques in the field of crane conservation, most notably the use of bird costumes by human handlers, and he's been recognized by the UN and by the Order of Canada.
Though Tex's life was cut short, Archibald is philosophical about it, saying that her rare line is at least continued:
I think very much that Tex was a metaphor for our whole effort here, for helping the cranes of the world. It's a rollercoaster ride, the odds are against us in many cases, but if we stick with it, and have faith, we're going to come through okay, and the cranes are going to come through okay.
This is a phenomenal tale of how one person can play a vital role in saving endangered species, even if it means getting a little creative. As of 2003, there are still only 153 pairs of whooping cranes in the world, so there's still work to be done. For more information on saving the cranes of the world, visit the International Crane Foundation.