For the Birds Radio Program: International Crane Foundation Meeting

Original Air Date: Sept. 18, 2001

Laura found some respite from the horrors of New York City in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where people from around the world were coming together in a spirit of cooperation.

Duration: 4′29″


In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks, it’s hard to get down to business as usual. Suddenly many things seem worthless or trivial. TV commercials seem frivolous relics of another time and place. Billboards, buildings, signs, and other advertising take on ironies and even sinister qualities they didn’t hold a week ago. A minivan passed me on I-35 with a Vikings flag waving merrily, and had almost seemed a slap in the face of America’s grief, as if the people had placed the flag there after September 11, rather than simply being too busy with other things to even notice.

Even driving down I-35 seemed somehow wrong, as if I should have stayed home, glued to my television. But I couldn’t do that anymore, and needed a break even as I thought about the rescue workers in New York, who certainly aren’t getting any breaks right now. But this past weekend was the International Crane Foundation’s annual meeting in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and my job required me to be there. I write for an internet service that teaches kids about bird migration, Journey North, and this fall we’re following the project to train captive-born Whooping Cranes to become wild and learn a migration route to Florida by following an Ultralight airplane, in the manner of geese in the movie Fly Away Home.

I was sent to the Crane Foundation meeting to talk to some of the key people who have developed this project. Raising the baby cranes has been a tricky thing. These birds have to be absolutely wild, and must never realize they’re being raised by humans. While they’re still in the egg, they’re exposed to the sounds of an Ultralight engine so they’ll not be at all frightened when they hear the real thing. Every human who they come in contact with from the moment they hatch must be costumed, wearing a billowy white robe to cover their entire human form, and holding a crane puppet.

To make the puppet more convincing, it has a little speaker on which the operator can play digital sounds of crane vocalizations recorded by Bernard Wessling, a research chemist from Germany. Dr. Wesslings recordings include simple contact calls, warning calls when a predator is near, flight calls, and others that will make socialization of these birds more realistic than was possible before puppets could produce wild crane sounds. Dr. Wessling was one of the people I got to meet at the crane meeting, and he managed to give an interesting, light-hearted presentation despite his anxiety about how he was going to return to Germany the following day when his flights had been cancelled.

China has been cooperating with the International Crane Foundation to help preserve Asian cranes, and sent a delegation of five to the meeting. These people arrived in New York early last week, and were scheduled to tour the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning, but set out later than they’d hoped, so they weren’t at the towers when they blew up. Cranes are a beloved symbol of longevity and fidelity to many people, and it was lovely to be with people from around the globe who care about preserving something that symbolizes our finest human qualities. This weekend was a welcome respite, and although it was hard to ride home listening to news of the rising death toll, and the funeral of New York’s fire chief, I felt a quiet joy that even in the face of despair, people can rise above political differences and come together to help endangered species. And listening to the radio, I felt proud of New Yorkers, coming together in this same cooperative spirit, to save human beings.