Tootsie isn’t the only one of my dogs who is helping others. Right now Willie and I are volunteering at the International Crane Foundation, working on a project to teach young, hand-reared Whooping Cranes to respond appropriately to canid predators. This species of crane came about as close to extinction possible, with only about 20 birds still alive in the forties because of feather hunting. Extensive efforts in the past decades have gotten their numbers up to 600 or so, some captive, but many living now in the wild.
Six hundred individuals is still an appalling low number of birds, and so efforts continue to hand rear chicks to add to the population in the wild. Researchers have found that although the cranes learn their migration routes (thanks to the ultra-light project of years past), court, mate and hatch out healthy chicks, the chicks have a high mortality rate in the first week of life. Snapping turtles are suspected of taking many of them, but there is evidence that coyotes or dogs have killed others.
The project I’m helping with is still in the planning stages, and will be discussed by the full staff at the Foundation soon, but last year Willie and I helped with a pilot project to see if there was a way a well-trained domestic dog could safely participate. I’m working with Willie now to be ready if the project is indeed approved, teaching him to run to an object that I can place anywhere, including out of sight and several hundred yards away. The idea is that I would be hidden, well out of sight of the “colts,” (the name for adolescent cranes, perfect in my opinion) while Willie is on a down-stay until the colts are released into an adjacent pen. A fence would always be between Willie and the cranes for the obvious safety of all.
Once Willie and I are in place, the cranes would be walked into the adjacent pen by the “crane models,” who are people with replicates of whooping crane necks and heads on one arm, and their body swathed in white. As Willie approaches the cranes, the models will give alarm calls, and run to safety. Ideally, we could enroll another dog that looks more ‘coyote’ like, but we’ll wait and see if the project is approved.
Last year, during the pilot study, Willie had to stay on a down/stay out of my sight, 200 yards away from me in the area where I was hidden from the cranes. He’s never been asked to do anything close to that off the farm, and I was thrilled when he cooperated perfectly. Good boy Willie boy. Again, what happens next is up to the experts at the Foundation, but I’m getting started teaching Willie to seek out a specific object (maybe a big, yellow ball, yellow being a color that dogs easily distinguish). Whatever happens, it’s an honor to try to help the efforts of such a wonderful organization.
Here are some photos from Saturday’s visit to the Foundation with my visiting sister, Wendy Barker. (Thanks to all of you who came to her talk at Arcadia Books!) From the top left, clockwise: The model of a crane head that attaches to the arm of a staff member, used to feed and communicate with the crane chicks. This imprints them on the correct stimuli and results in them responding appropriately to real cranes when they are older. A female Whooper who is awaiting a new mate, my sister Wendy Barker enraptured and enwrapped by a “Whooper” who greets visitors at the visitor center, a Brolga crane grooming (native of Australia), and a photo of just some of the stuffed toy cranes that you can buy at the visitor center. I want them all.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The weather made an abrupt shift from spring to summer, literally overnight. Thursday evening it was spring. Friday morning it was summer. I don’t remember the dividing line being quite so clear in the past. But the spring flowers are still blooming. Here is one of my favorite areas–the white-flowered bush is Bridal Veil, the purple is Ajuga, and the pink is from Bleeding Hearts. Soon the peonies will come out, and then there will be a pause before the day lilies and prairie plants start blooming in late June. But there’s lots of planting, weeding and fertilizing to do in the garden, not to mention working Willie and Maggie on the sheep. Willie works the “lamb flock,” being far more experience in the ways of protective momma sheep, and Maggie and I are working with the others. Both BCs are tired out every night, yay!