George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, is one of the world’s foremost advocates for bird conservation.
Whenever he talks about Whooping Cranes, one of the birds our readers say they want to see most, we listen. And when he talks about wind turbines near crane migration and roosting areas, the beleaguered population of Whooping Cranes in Texas, cranes in North and South Korea, and Sandhill Crane hunting here in the United States, he makes news.
I interviewed Archibald hours before ICF’s 40th-anniversary gala in Milwaukee last week. Like Jane Goodall, the featured speaker at the event, he credited his parents “for putting up with this kid who followed ducks around on his hands and knees.”
‘Imprinted on Whooping Cranes’
As a child growing up in Nova Scotia, he recalled listening to a radio dramatization in 1954 about Whooping Cranes and the discovery of their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park. “From that day on, I was totally imprinted on Whooping Cranes,” Archibald joked.
Twelve years later in northern Alberta, he saw wild cranes for the first time. Sandhill Cranes were circling high above him “and this very loud call was floating to Earth.” He was so fascinated that he went to Cornell University to study cranes.
“I knew the story of the Whooping Crane so well,” Archibald said, “and I took some conservation courses at Cornell about where the world was heading. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if somebody doesn’t do something for the other cranes, they’re going to be extinct.’”
At the time, Archibald also read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. “I absolutely devoured this book because he expressed in words what I had learned to feel about cranes,” said Archibald, who went on to quote from the passage about cranes in Leopold’s essay “Marshland Elegy.”
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird,” Leopold wrote. “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”
At Cornell, Archibald met Ron Sauey, who was also studying cranes, and the two soon decided to establish ICF. Sauey’s family, who lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin, “leased us their horse farm for a buck a year, moved their horses to Florida, and the rest is history.” (Sauey died in 1987 at age 38 following a cerebral hemorrhage.)
Archibald gained national fame in 1982, when he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” to tell the story of Tex, a female Whooping Crane that had imprinted on humans. Because Tex didn’t recognize other Whoopers as kin, Archibald decided that the only way to get her to breed was to dance with her as a male crane would. The ploy worked; Tex was artificially inseminated, and she laid an egg.
George and Tex
In this video produced by ICF, Archibald describes why Tex was important genetically, how he danced with her, and why he and his colleagues had to submerge her only egg in ice water. The video includes clips of Archibald’s interview with Johnny Carson.
Tex’s offspring, a male named Gee Whiz, still lives at ICF. “He’s getting to be an old man,” Archibald said. Over the decades, Gee Whiz has sired many offspring, including several birds that have been released into the wild in Florida and Wisconsin.
One of Gee Whiz’s female offspring, a bird Archibald jokingly referred to as “my granddaughter” is part of the eastern migratory population. She and her mate breed on a reservoir in a cranberry farm near Babcock, Wisconsin, and last year, she fledged a male chick. Naturally, Archibald quipped, that bird is his “great-grandson.”
“The story of Tex is sort of metaphorical for looking at the impossible and turning it into something wonderful,” he said.
In addition to interviewing Archibald, I also spoke with actress and conservationist Jane Alexander, the gala’s master of ceremonies. Archibald and Alexander met in 2006 at the inaugural award event for the Indianapolis Prize, a biennial initiative of the Indianapolis Zoo that honors one of the world’s leading conservationists. Archibald received the $100,000 prize that year. In 2012, Indianapolis Prize officials created the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award and presented the inaugural award to Alexander.
In recent years, Archibald and Alexander have traveled with other ICF supporters and friends to see Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and to Bhutan, where a large portion of the Black-necked Crane population winters.
Read why Alexander challenges birdwatchers to speak up for birds.
Below is my full interview with George Archibald. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor
Could you have imagined a celebration like this 40 years ago?
I always try to operate in the present. I don’t spend much time thinking about the future. I knew from the very start that this would be a wonderful project, and had no idea how it would unfold, but I couldn’t be happier.
What’s your pulse on the state of the Whooping Crane these days?
Compared to 1940, things are pretty rosy. But we have continuing threats.
Our main concern is the migratory flock that breeds up in northern Canada and winters in Texas. The big issue there is freshwater inflow to coastal marshes. There’s a court case, which is now on appeal. We won the first battle. It was appealed in New Orleans, and now we’re waiting for result of the appeal. It could go to the Supreme Court. It basically boils down to the state versus the federal Endangered Species Act. That’s a big issue we’ve been interacting with a lot. We’re very grateful to Jim Blackburn (attorney for the Aransas Project) and his legal team in Houston, who are heading this whole thing. We’re simply a participant, we’re not a leader.
Is there a timeline for a decision on the appeal?
October, we’re hoping, but it depends on the judge.
With our new (eastern migratory) population, we’re very disappointed they’re not breeding at a level to sustain themselves in the Necedah area. We believe it’s predominantly because of the black flies.
This year we had 20 nests and 19 abandonments when the black flies hatched. Pretty depressing data. So we’ve been shifting our releases to the Horicon area, and this year, we’re bringing 15 new birds into the population and hoping it does better in eastern Wisconsin than it did in central. And we have a third population now in Louisiana. They should have breeding next year. They seem to be doing really well. It’s a non-migratory flock living on huge wetlands. We’re very encouraged about that one.
I was at the Whooping Crane Festival in Berlin, Wisconsin, and I was told that the plan for next spring at Necedah is to remove eggs when the cranes first nest and try to force them to lay a second nest after the black fly emergence. How do you feel about that?
I think that’s a good idea. One of the controversies is Bti, this bacillus that kills the black flies. One camp wants to use it, and continue to do it forever. The other camp doesn’t want to do it because these birds should be able to (manage) on their own without this type of ecological intervention. That debate is going to happen in the next few months. We’re going to have a conference in Madison, I believe.
The argument for Bti is that it’s very effective in other states for control of mosquitoes, so why not do it to help the Whooping Crane? We knew that they did better when the Bti treatment was used.
Another argument is, to see this interaction between the Whooping Cranes and the black flies, you can understand the degree of discomfort these birds have. Is that a humane thing to do, to put them into a circumstance where there’s an ecological factor that’s torturous? So, somewhere we’re going to come to a compromise. And in all of our projects all over the world, it’s like ‘They think this, they think that. Well, how can we reach a win-win?’
And you’re also releasing some parent-reared birds at Necedah this fall.
Yes, I’m very very interested in this. From 1993 until 2006, we released 289 captive-reared birds in Florida. A third came from Baraboo, two-thirds came from Patuxent (Wildlife Research Refuge in Maryland). About a quarter of those birds were reared by their parents, and the rest were reared by costumed people.
One time at the Crane Foundation as we were socializing our little flock to be flown by Terry Kohler to Florida for release, there was a mixture of two or three parent-reared birds with half a dozen or eight costume-reared birds. They were in the same pen. And next door was an adult Whooping Crane, a role model, so they’d be more familiar with Whooping Cranes; we had role models throughout their rearing. The couple of birds that were parent-reared were crawling the wall trying to get in with this white adult bird next door, whereas the other ones were sort of ho-hum.
And so I thought, ‘Man, parent-reared birds are going to gravitate very very quickly to adult Whooping Cranes that they encounter in the wild because they’re so imprinted and fixated.’ This fall, they’re releasing four parent-reared birds, and the first bird that they released is glued on (to the adults), so it’s looking very hopeful.
What’s your take on the change in the counting procedure at Aransas (from a direct census to a statistical-sampling method) that the Fish and Wildlife Service is using now?
My personal feeling is that it’s not that difficult to count 300 birds, so why not do that? That’s where my stand is. Then we know the numbers and we can follow them through the winter to know who’s disappearing. Otherwise we don’t have an accurate count, and with water issues, we need that data. The whole court case was based on the mortality of 2008-2009, when 23 birds disappeared that (retired FWS Whooping Crane Coordinator) Tom Stehn documented. We don’t have that kind of information. So that’s where I stand on that one, with a lot of other people.
And isn’t it true that we don’t know if there have been any significant mortalities (in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock) since Tom’s retirement?
We don’t know. We’ve had very dry years. I know there were fewer nests this year on the breeding grounds and fewer chick rearings. There could be other factors, but still it doesn’t look that great. We don’t really know the last two years how many birds there are. And it’s so political with Fish and Wildlife being responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. They’re the ones that should be getting the data. But we don’t have the data. Skeptics will think, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Do you have an opinion on what’s going on?
I think we’ve had new people coming in since Tom Stehn left. He knew the place like the back of his hand for 30 years. They don’t know it as well, and it’s more difficult if you don’t know it. If we had a huge population, of course you’d have to do statistical sampling, but I don’t believe that’s the case with 300 birds or 250 or whatever we have.
Do you worry about all the wind turbines that are going up across the country and the push for more?
I’m concerned about the placement of wind turbines. I think placement in certain areas is OK, perhaps, for cranes, and in other areas, it’s not good. We know that Whooping Cranes on migration roost at night in small wetlands, little ponds out in the fields, and they feed in nearby cornfields or wheat fields. If you put wind turbines in those kinds of areas, it could be much more dangerous than if you put them in hilly areas. You could have one on top of a hill (because) that’s an area where cranes aren’t going to land.
And there’s a really good example of that in a county near Kearney, Nebraska. The western half of the county is canyons and red cedars and the other half is big open farms, ponds, and fields. And they are putting the wind machines in the canyon areas, which is great.
We’re all for clean energy, but on the other side, you have to be careful. As with all of these other problems, I think there are compromises.
That’s why this huge study is being done on Whooping Cranes for the past four years. (Scientists from the Nebraska-based Crane Trust) have been attaching satellite radios to about 20 birds a year. Some are juveniles caught on the breeding grounds, some are adults or juveniles captured at Aransas. And we’ve been able to monitor the mortality and movements of those birds very accurately. Through them we have some insight into what’s happening on the wintering grounds. Some of them have been disappearing, of course. Nothing lives forever. And we’re getting very exact information about where they go on migration, so this is going to help tailor where to put wind farms and where not to. So we’re being quite proactive on that.
Are the wind farm producers aware of the issue and the study?
I’m not sure who’s communicating with them because the study is underway now. But my colleagues in Nebraska have been working very much with the wind-farm people because they know where the cranes go, more so than, say, in the Dakotas or in Kansas or Oklahoma. There is already a lot of interaction with the wind-farm people.
I asked my Twitter followers if they had any questions for you, and one asked: What are the biggest conservation challenges for Asian cranes?
In many parts of Asia, cranes are treasured birds, which gives us a huge advantage in wetland protection. The greatest threat for them is loss of habitat in eastern Asia, where we have most of our endangered cranes. In western Asia, it’s a hunting issue and a habitat issue. We lost both of our Siberian Crane flocks that went to Iran and to India through hunting.
In east Asia, where we have five species of endangered crane, it’s mainly habitat. And habitat challenges are related to dams flooding wetlands or drying up of the wetlands downstream; outright development of drainage areas; and climate change, especially on the Tibetan Plateau, where we have the Black-necked Crane. The Plateau has permafrost, and if the permafrost melts, the wetland is called ‘perched.’ It just sinks down. They can’t breed there. And in other areas, the glaciers are melting and turning wetlands into lakes, so there may be new wetlands, or there may be no wetlands if the lakes go up against hills.
Lots of birders have been upset recently about Sandhill Crane hunts in the eastern states. We’ve noticed that a lot of states allow crane hunts, which people might not know unless they’re hunters. How do you feel about it?
Well, I personally don’t like crane hunting wherever it’s happening. But I also realize that hunters do more for conservation than anybody else. They put up money for habitat. Birdwatchers do very little, I’m afraid to say. I hope they’ll do more. So I’m very supportive of hunters and the goals of hunting in deer management and goose management. And the recreation (is important). I have friends who can’t sleep the night before the hunting season opens. It’s like me going to watch Whooping Cranes.
As an organization, we’ve taken a neutral stand on it because we want to get the scientific facts about where the cranes are, and if they do hunting, then it’s better to do it here than there, with less impact, particularly on the Whooping Cranes.
Again, we try to make a win-win. If you take a completely polarized stand over here, sometimes it can be destructive over there because, for example, if we bring Whooping Cranes back on the landscape, there could be a backlash to that. But then again, the hunting could be a threat to Whooping Cranes unless the hunters are educated. We’re emphasizing education and careful (selection of) sites where cranes are hunted.
It’s a complicated, very emotional issue, but I think ICF has taken a very objective and common sense approach to it.
That seems to be the hallmark of ICF over the decades.
A lot of people would like us to be ranting and raving, but that’s not our philosophy.
Did you know that early on that you’d have to try to strike a balance?
I’ve always been sort of a compromiser. The first country I worked in in 1972 was Japan, and I learned so much from the Japanese. We discovered a very huge conservation issue in Japan, and then you meet and you discuss, and go back and forth. And this went on and on, and finally, some really wonderful results were attained, but it was through patience and communication…forever. There are still problems there, but the Japanese have made a tremendous amount of progress protecting wetlands in Japan. So I learned about compromise back then. And my parents brought me up that way, too.
What’s the status of cranes in Korea?
In Korea, the cranes are concentrated along the Demilitarized Zone, and South Korea would like to develop the lowlands (of the DMZ), which are the crane areas. Build factories and provide jobs for North Koreans, and so on. And that will of course destroy the crane habitats. The Red-crowned Crane is the main bird in that area. White-naped Cranes migrates through North Korea, but they winter a little farther south in Japan. And the Hooded Crane mostly goes to Japan.
There’s a group in South Korea that is promoting conservation, but they have, in my opinion, a soft voice, compared to the roar of development. We have great friends in South Korea. It’s their problem to solve. We’re outsiders. There’s very little we can do, except to say, “Look, I hope you can save some areas for these birds.” So who knows what’s going to happen in South Korea.
In North Korea, we have a huge impact because the people we’re working with need financial resources, and we have the blessing of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the State Department to bring in small funds to North Korea to help our colleagues survey where the cranes are. We know where they used to be. In the 1990s, they all moved, except for six birds, to the DMZ because of the widespread problems with starvation and so on in North Korea.
But North Korea sort of got on its feet since 2000. When the Soviet Union broke up, they were so dependent; suddenly there were food shortages, no fertilizers, and so on. When we came in 2008, things were much better there.
We’ve been working in this remote valley on the east coast of North Korea to help the farmers develop organic farming practices that don’t require industrial fertilizers. It’s very effective, and the cranes have started to return to that area. And we communicate the information about what’s happening in North Korea to South Korea because there’s no contact. Zero.
I’ll go to North Korea in December for a couple of weeks, travel around to different sites, give them some money to continue their work because they’re threadbare. They didn’t even have a vehicle. We had to get them a vehicle so they could do some surveys. Then I go straight to South Korea and meet my colleagues and tell them what’s going on. It’s illegal to bring funds from South Korea into North Korea, so we have to raise money elsewhere. It shows the very important role of the Crane Foundation in communication. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future, but this year, we have a little package of money to bring over there, and we have the permission to do that.
My feeling is that in the near future things are going to be better between North and South Korea and there will be a flood of funds and expertise coming into North Korea. A lot of it will be for development, but on the other side will be the South Korean conservationists and scientists, and then our role will be very minimal, as it is in South Korea today.
We hope that reunification will happen. It’s the dream of every Korean.
How do you know Jane Goodall?
Jane loves to come to the Platte River, and we have a mutual friend: Tom Mangelsen, the photographer. His family had a home out there between Grand Island and Kearney on the south side of the river.
They became really good friends. Tom’s a very laid back, wonderful, kind person, and Jane was invited to spend some time on the Platte River to see the cranes. And she fell in love with it, as I did. Through Tom we met a number of years ago. And just about every spring we meet out there. I bring a group of our members, they leave, and then Jane and I have a visit, and we catch up.
It’s only been the last half dozen years or so that we’ve known each other.
So what happens after tonight — in ICF’s 41st year?
My major concern is the long-term financial security of the Crane Foundation. I was able to turn over the leadership in 2000 to other people, and they’ve been doing a great job. The Foundation continues to grow, but of course it’s always hungry for cash. So I’m hoping to spend a few years building up our endowment funds for our long-term security.
And then I’m hoping to write a series of books about all the countries I’ve worked in. I’ll need to go and live there and write the book when I’m there, reflecting back on so many years that I’d been there, and what I’ve seen, and what’s going on. Yeah, I want to do that. Sort of like what James Herriot did, but not nearly as funny.
Of course, I love living in Wisconsin. No matter where I go, Wisconsin always looks better.
Jane Goodall’s offers four reasons for hope in the face of the biodiversity crisis.
Actress and conservationist Jane Alexander challenges birdwatchers to speak up for birds.
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