Roosting on a rooftop just behind the Mississippi levee in New Orleans, a group of men and women kept a four-day vigil last week, staring down into a patch of weeds and grass at the unfolding of an event which no man had ever seen before, the hatching of a pair of whooping cranes.
In many respects the arrival of the two rusty-brown fledglings in the Audubon Park Zoo was an ornithological miracle. The parent birds, Crip and Josephine, had both been wounded by gunshot years before. They had been captured and shunted back and forth between Texas and Louisiana. They had been kept under conditions utterly foreign to the wild and wary race of whooping cranes.
Their previous nesting attempts had resulted in failure, except in 1950 when they produced a chick on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas coast. But that chick, dubbed Rusty, disappeared four days after hatching, apparently the victim of a raccoon. Nobody ever got within 150 yards of Rusty. When the whoopers left the refuge this spring for their breeding grounds in northern Canada there were only 27 of the wild birds left. The hatching of these babies by the captive birds brings the world whooping crane total to 31. If any are reared in Canada, the results will not be known until the crane families come back to their Texas wintering grounds this fall.
It also was a miracle that George Douglass, director of the zoo, did not collapse under the month-long strain of having the only captive whooping cranes in the world produce young under his care. At one crucial point Douglass, his muscles cramped from squatting on the slate roof, the only vantage point from which the nest could be seen, raised a strained face and said, "I'm taking sedatives."
The place where Crip and Jo nested was about as secluded as a baseball diamond. In fact, there are three baseball diamonds nearby, but the nearest was closed for fear that a stray ball might sail over the fence. The New Orleans home of the cranes is an acre-and-a-quarter enclosure fenced with chicken wire strung on old railroad ties. It lies just behind a row of animal cages housing lions, elephants and bears. On the other side is a shed for park trucks and maintenance equipment. A hundred yards beyond that is the river levee. Along one side of Crip and Jo's pen runs a park drive.
The spot selected for laying the eggs was right next to the chicken wire and only 25 feet from the back wall of the shed. As the birds took turns on the nest they could hear the deep whistles of boats on the river, the roar of lions, the yells of baseball players, the crowing of a bunch of bantam roosters and the murmuring of the pigeons that come to share their food. To top it all there was a floodlight on the shed which came on each night to cast its beams over the brooding birds.
Normally any one of these sights or sounds would be enough to give a whooping crane the creeping meemies, but Crip and Josephine, through years of captivity, have become accustomed to their odd surroundings. The enclosure with its cedar trees, its althea shrubs, its crape myrtle trees and elderberry bushes has become their domain. There is a little pool of fresh water, and Hector Benoit, their keeper, brings food each day, entering and leaving with slow movements.
On April 27 Hector discovered a single egg near the fence. No nest had been built; the egg simply rested on the short grass. It was olive brown and splotched with darker brown markings, especially on the larger end. Four days later a second egg appeared beside the first. As the incubation continued the birds piled dried grass up around the eggs into a semblance of a nest. Rains came during the nesting month and the grass grew tall.
When the eggs were laid Douglass stationed a round-the-clock guard over his potential crane family, a keeper on one side of the pen and a policeman on the other.
During the incubation the five-foot birds took turns on the nest with Josephine doing most of the work. When she wanted relief she gave a low, rolling call and Crip would come to the nest. She would rise and walk away, stretching her wings. Then he would step forward, reach down and roll the eggs about with his beak before settling over them. Each time there was a nest relief the arriving bird would roll the eggs slowly and carefully.
The incubation period could only be guessed at because in the case of Rusty the exact date the egg was laid had not been learned. It was thought to be from 32 to 34 days. In the early stages of the incubation period Josephine left the nest as much as six times a day and each time the male took over. As the end of incubation drew near, Josephine left less frequently.
By Monday, the 31st day of incubation, there was a definite change in the behavior of Josephine. She refused to leave the nest, rising only occasionally to turn the eggs. She gave her low, gurgling call repeatedly, and at nightfall she was still sitting tight. During the night the guard telephoned the director saying that he heard peeping. Douglass got there at 1:20 a.m. and stayed until 3:30 a.m. During that time he thought he heard peeping too. If they did, the chick was peeping inside the cracked egg as in the case with baby chickens.
The next morning Josephine was still on the nest. A long ladder had been placed against the shed, giving access to the steep roof from the side away from the cranes. From the ridge, observers could look down into the nest from a distance of only 40 feet. We sat on the ridge or clung to the slates with our heads peeking over. Each time Josephine rose to turn the eggs, eyes strained toward the nest. At first there was no sign of change, but at 10:15 a.m. she rolled one egg over. There on the top of it near the large end was a hole the size of a nickel.
"Did you see what I saw?" the director asked, lowering his binoculars. We nodded. Each time Josephine rose to turn the eggs the hole was a bit larger. It progressed around the shell until it was two inches long. At 2:05 p.m. a wing stuck out. The director called down orders to make sure the guards were at their posts. Josephine sat down again. But she kept shifting nervously on the nest. Crip remained nearby, treading up and down until he had matted down a large area of the long grass.
At 2:36 p.m. Josephine rose. The egg had broken open and beside it was stretched a brown form the size of a robin. It was damp and glistening and the down stuck close to its body. It threshed its stubby wings and peeped. The peep was like that of a baby chicken but louder and coarser. Josephine sat down again.
Douglass climbed down the ladder, hurrying to his office to carry out his promises to phone local papers "in case anything happens."
"The baby is strong, the mother is fine and I'm a wreck," he announced. "This is the best mother and father I've ever seen on a nest. It was a bird watcher's paradise."
At 5:34 p.m. Josephine rose and called to Crip. Crip walked over and for the first time obviously recognized the chick. Then the parent birds, standing side by side, raised their heads in the air and gave the loud call of the whooping crane, a call which is not a whoop at all but a clear, bugling sound. This time it was as though they were making their own announcement. Josephine went to the pool 20 feet away, drank and hurried back to the nest.
While she was gone Crip didn't cover the nest but moved around it slowly with his head down close to the newborn chick. Darkness came and the floodlight on the shed went on. Josephine sat on the nest as she always did at night. The tall grass cast shadow patterns over her white plumage. In the half light 10 feet from the nest stood old Crip, erect, silent and alert. The assorted noises of the day were gone but for an occasional cry of some animal in the zoo. Crip stood straight as a sentinel, inclining his head now and then to gaze into the night sky.
By daylight the chick had fluffed out into a rich brown. It could stand but still stayed at its mother's side. At 7:35 a.m. Josephine reached out, caught a bug and tried to get the chick to take it. The chick grabbed for it but it was impossible to tell whether it went down. At 8:20 a.m. it started to rain, and Josephine eased the chick under her breast feathers.
At 11:25 a.m. the parents called, and Josephine relinquished the nest to Crip for the first time since the hatching of the chick. She walked over and ate hurriedly, her first meal in two days. She returned to the nest in 11 minutes. By 3:30 p.m. the chick was stronger and wandered 10 to 20 feet from the nest. The old birds changed places at intervals of a half hour to an hour.
The bird not on the nest continually tramped the grass near the chick, turning up grasshoppers, bugs and snails which were mashed and then passed to the chick which snatched them eagerly. The first morsel I saw the chick take was a plump spider. Once Crip caught a katydid but it was too big to be swallowed.
By this time the shed roof was crawling with student ornithologists, zoo employees and assorted photographers and reporters. The cranes paid almost no heed to the row of figures above them.
A hole was first discovered in the second egg at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday. Thursday dragged on without its hatching. The hole got somewhat bigger and movement could be detected, but night came without a second chick.
"Do you think there's cause for worry?" Douglass asked, a distraught look in his eyes. During the night he didn't sleep a wink. At 5:25 a.m. Friday he climbed to the roof and sat there, a weary figure in the growing light. At 6:08 a.m. chick No. 1 came out from under the mother. At 6:17 a.m. Josephine rose and there in the nest was chick No. 2, already fluffy and able to sit up and take notice. Apparently it had hatched early in the night.
From his rooftop perch the director turned toward Ignatius Champagne, zoo maintenance man, standing in the yard below. Douglass raised two fingers in a sign which meant two chicks but which also was the V for Victory. Then he climbed down the ladder like a 10-year-old boy.
He passed the day answering the telephone and reading telegrams which came in from zoo directors, wildlife officials and others from many parts of the United States and Canada. By this time he was being called "Pop" all over New Orleans. At one point in his busy day he was asked what he intended to do with the young whoopers.
"We've got to raise 'em in captivity first," he said. "That's never been done, either."
Back in the pen Crip, a captive for seven years, and Josephine, a captive for 15 years, led their two fluffy offspring through the grass on a diligent bug hunt. After seven years of trying they were still intent on becoming the first to raise young whooping cranes under unnatural conditions.
At dawn Sunday the younger and smaller of the two whooping crane chicks was missing. Ten zoo employees slashed the undergrowth with scythes and crawled through the grass in a vain search. George Douglass, zoo director, feared that an owl or a rat had made off with the weaker chick during the night. Immediately he had a small-mesh wire fence built, reducing the pen to one-sixth of its former size. Workmen also were covering the pen with a wire roof to keep out further marauders. At last report chick No. 1 was in fine shape—husky, always hungry and growing fast.