How many people does it take to artificially inseminate a whooping crane?
"Three. One physiologist to administer the insemination and two people to hold the crane down," says Dr. Ray Erickson, not telling a whooping crane joke.
Last spring, on the 29th of May, at 7:20 a.m. a whooping crane chick whose mother had been artificially inseminated, broke the last wall of shell and fell into the world. The chick, wet-matted and dazed from the rigors of hatching, blinked while a man from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kept his movie camera whirring.
The only other observer, Dr. James Carpenter, a member of the staff that had planned the first hatching of a whooping crane from an artificially inseminated bird for eight years, watched with awe.
"It was an exciting moment," he said without excitement, like an astronaut austerely detailing a landing. "This was what the program had been working toward for 10 years."
The whooping crane hatched at the Patuxent Endangered Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, Md., was the result of a $166,500-a-year federal program to study whooping cranes and try to make more of them. The $166,500 also pays for the maintenance of the winter station at Texas' Aransas Wildlife Refuge. It does not seem an outrageous sum, but when questioned about the amount, an official of the Fish and Wildlife Service said, "Ooh, I was afraid you'd ask that. Would it be enough to say, 'A lot'?" However, he then proceeded to precisely dismantle the figure, and the budget contains nothing suspiciously large in such bureaucratic catchall categories as "contingency" and "other."
The Patuxent center, 355 acres of undulating woods and low grassland, itself seems to be trying desperately to hide from spreading suburbia, but that is getting harder. The plywood condos and 31 Flavors of Roast Beef stands are closing in. Highway 197 leads out of Laurel toward the center, dipping and narrowing through tree walls of shade. Then, about three miles from town, the land gets subtly less tidy, though hardly wilderness, and soon Patuxent's timid sign comes up on the right, like a thin hitchhiker, and points you through the gates to a drive lifting with the hillside. At the top of the hill the woods part for green lawns and red brick houses. Patuxent resembles nothing so much as a small and richly endowed campus.
There, Dr. Ray Erickson oversees the Endangered Species program. His manner is kind and unalterably calm. Entering the center one week after the first artificially inseminated whooping crane egg had hatched, one expected some celebration, but the air was sober.
"Actually, we're ecstatic," Erickson said. "It's just that we're not a very excitable group."
As a matter of fact, Erickson wasn't even at Patuxent for the hatching but up in Canada participating in a whooping crane egg-gathering expedition at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories. Whooping cranes nest there, 10 miles from the nearest road, in a spot so rugged that the only place a helicopter can land is on one of the small blue ponds that dot the area. Following the expedition, Erickson had flown to Gray's Lake, Idaho and placed the eggs in the nests of sandhill cranes, which are in no danger of extinction.