crane chick to be banded

crane chick to be banded

The most fun—and the most exercise—I had in Mongolia was running after crane chicks that couldn’t yet fly and that the scientists wanted to capture, weigh, measure and band with colored,identifying leg rings and in some cases radio transmitters. They did this for about 42 birds, most before my group arrived, and it was quite an experience.

weighing swaddled, blindfolded chick

weighing swaddled, blindfolded chick

To understand the importance of this work, it may help to know how few cranes there are world wide for some of the species we saw. Although there are 500,000 Common cranes and 300,000 Demoiselle cranes, there are only 11,000 Hooded cranes, 3500 Siberian cranes, and 5000 of the White-naped cranes that we were banding. Seven of the remaining 10 species only number 8-30,000 each, another two thriving at 150,000 (Brolga) and 600,000 (Sandhill) each, and the Whooping up to 600. The last two are the only wild ones in America, and I have seen them both during their annual migration through Nebraska. All 15 are at George’s foundation HQ in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

releasing crane with leg bands and transmitter

releasing crane with leg bands and transmitter

OK here is how you catch a crane. One scientist stood on the roof of the van with a 40-power telescope on a tripod to follow the birds—adults and chicks. He had a walkie talkie that communicated with one of the Mongolian men—all three in their 20’s—who would do the chasing. The runners were either barefoot or wearing a rubber sock, like fly fishermen wear to give them traction and stability in the water. This is because the wetland, where the birds live and eat, is really a swamp of grass about 12 inches high in water 3-8 inches deep on top of soil that is all mud. Perfect crane habitat. Terrible for running: it’s soft, squooshy, and you sink in with every step.

calmed with black sock, banded, and unswaddled

calmed with black sock, banded, and unswaddled

You also don’t know with each step how deeply you will sink, or how deep the water is…you can’t see it, and you are running as fast as you can. I know this, because I did it a couple of times. Very exciting. Of course I couldn’t run as fast at first as Itra, Batra and Chuka, especially in my tennis shoes (size 14) and wool socks, but I was able to keep up with them for much of the chase. The second time I took their advice and just ran in socks, and that was much easier. We ran about a mile non-stop as fast as possible.

just a few more measurements

just a few more measurements

As soon as the family is spotted, we start running. The parents see us early on and walk away with the chick…then fly away a few hundred feet. The only defense the chick has is to keep running and periodically hunker down in the grass to evade predators like raptors, foxes and humans! The man with the telescope on the van tries to keep the chick located and lets the runner know via walkie talkie, where to run. None of the four of us can see the chick. We are just trying to bump into it in the grass. I may have been useful the second time in rounding the bird toward the runners who were ahead of me and sweeping back in my direction

I caught up to the group in maybe 10 seconds. They had found and caught the chick and were swaddling it in a fitted diaper with velcro fasteners. A black sock on its head calms all the cranes for some reason.

George and the three women in our group had walked into the swamp for a closer look when all the runners took off. Jennifer the scientist in her 30’s is training for 5k races, and she was with me for a few hundred yards and then stopped running. George was looking at wildflowers and plants with his binoculars and laughed a lot later about how he was watching me run at one point, “And then he totally disappeared!” This was because I suddenly stepped into some water that was really a stream, and I sank 3-4 feet deep, up past mid-thigh. That was a surprise. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt, but walking on the way back, I saw that there was no way to avoid the crossing hidden in the grass, and I stepped into the deep water again. I am very proud that Itra kept saying how fast I ran and that I kept up with the other runners. Hours on the tennis court seemed to pay off in the steppes.

this chick was calm without the sock blindfold

this chick was calm without the sock blindfold

Back at the vehicles with the bird, a lot of measurements are taken after the bands are attached to the bird’s leg: height, weight, wing span, beak size, leg length, etc. Then the bird is released back to its anxious parents in the hopes that a colleague in some other country thousands of miles away will let them know that it has passed through or arrived.

I remain amazed that two of the scientists have visited these countless wetlands spread over hundreds of miles so often that they not only know each one of them, not only know which of the hundreds of forks in the trail they need to take to get back to them, but also know how many pairs are at each wetland, which ones have chicks or not that year, how many chicks (one or two or none–they “failed”) and whether or not they have already banded that chick. I think it’s astonishing. The trails are not marked, and they all look almost the same to me.

Also impressive was to learn that Nimba, the scientist who studied raptors in his early years(late ’90’s), was familiar with all the raptors in the valley we went to, knew where all the nests were, befriended the nomads whose gers we visited and ate in, and was instrumental in having the government designate that area as a preserve that cannot be developed and disturb the birds’ habitat. But it was mind-boggling to also discover that he climbed up or down mountains and cliffs to go to every nest, and that the Black vultures came to know him so comfortably that they would perch just a few yards away, while he went into their nests and measured and weighed their nestlings who couldn’t yet fly!!!

free again and looking for momma

free again and looking for momma

What kind of dedicated people devote their lives to obtaining these facts and measurements? Scientists spent decades discovering where the birds breed and migrate to. Those are detective stories in their own right. Apparently there is still more to learn about the habits of these beautiful creatures. Let’s hope the Georges and Nimbas and others as dedicated can save much of the habitat—and therefore many of the birds—before humans dominate and destroy their habitat or kill the birds for food and decorative feathers…