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.