Route To Recovery A Maryland Scientist Is Leading A Bold Experiment To Give Whooping Cranes A Flying Start On Long Journey Back From Near-extinction

January 28, 1996|By TOM HORTON

Sonoran Desert, Arizona -- It gets so hot here the resident buzzards have evolved to pee down their legs for evaporative cooling, one of many adaptations among desert life. And so, with the sun scarcely up, Dave Ellis already has broken camp and served our breakfast -- a gallon of pear halves in heavy syrup -- on the dust-caked hood of a pickup, and now is charging hard through the fleeting cool down Route 238 toward the distant Picacho Mountains.

This is Day 10 of the damnedest caravan to enter the Southwest since the conquistadors: an experimental, 400-mile "migration" last autumn of 10 silver-gray birds, painstakingly reared in Maryland to consider a surplus Army ambulance from Fort Meade their mother. Their long journey, if they can follow the ambulance from around Flagstaff, Ariz., to Sasabe on the Mexican border, will be a small but important step on the far longer road to recovering one of the world's most magnificent endangered species, Grus americana: the whooping crane.

That road began in earnest half a century ago with a decade-long search to locate the nesting ground of the few remaining whoopers. If all goes well, 25 years from now there may be a thousand whoopers in all of existence, up from a present world population of around 340. Even this is huge progress from the species' all-time low of around 20 birds half a century ago.

If there is a lesson to be learned from our struggle to reassemble the whooping crane, it might be this: how incredibly complicated it is to emulate, even crudely, the perpetuation of life that unfettered nature achieves with humbling efficiency.

Consider the challenge of a simple traffic intersection. I undertake it soon after joining Dr. Ellis and his band on their motorized migration, designed to teach those Maryland-raised cranes to fly south for the winter.

I had always thought it would be glorious to soar with the eagles, to fly south with the geese; but just at the moment, standing here, backing up puzzled motorists in the middle of a dual highway between Gila Bend and Maricopa, I feel more like a very odd duck.

My job is to stop traffic to allow the caravan to pass through intersections. I am dressed like all the crane crew in a long-billed red cap and voluminous, uniquely patterned anorak sewn by Dr. Ellis' wife, Cathy. To prevent their becoming dangerously habituated to humans, our cranes are conditioned to shy clear of anyone not dressed this way. This accouterment is further enhanced for the moment with the orange vest, hard hat and hand-held stop sign of an Arizona state highway worker, for whom motorists are conditioned to brake.

I stare at the traffic, and the traffic stares back. Fingers drum on steering wheels. "Cranemobile coming through," crackles across the radio in Dr. Ellis' 1979 Scout utility vehicle, parked to one side of the junction.

"Flap!" Dr. Ellis calls from the Scout, pumping his own arms with vigor. "Flap your arms and turn so the sun catches the white on your [anorak's] belly -- it'll encourage the birds."

And then the cranemobile is here, gilded by the rising sun, a sight to behold -- an Army surplus ambulance with crane-symbol flags mounted on each corner. The flags are popping smartly in the wind. In the back of the vehicle, research aide Brian Clauss of Westover, Md., flaps and waves his red cap and trills a whistle in imitation of the cranes' cricketlike brrrr-ing. Close behind, flapping for all they're worth and dipping close to the surface of the highway, come the cranes.

They are not the giant whoopers, which stand 4 1/2 feet high with wingspreads approaching 8 feet; rather a smaller, related species known as greater sandhill cranes. Whoopers are too precious to risk until more is learned about the tantalizing possibilities of teaching cranes new migration routes to replace those lost as hunting and habitat destruction extinguished flock after flock of cranes. Until then, the sandhills, a Western U.S. species plentiful enough to be hunted, will be their stand-ins.

Dr. Ellis admiringly calls the graceful birds "my little athletes." He is having to push them well beyond what is desirable in such hot regions, but so far they are responding like champions.

At nearly 40 miles per hour, the cranemobile and its children soon fade from sight, the birds having risen smartly to avoid an oncoming 18-wheeler, then veering to avoid a power line. Doffing highway-worker gear, I scramble into the Scout to race to pass them before the next stop sign. En route a county sheriff's car turns and follows before turning off. It is not, Dr. Ellis volunteers, illegal to thus take a bird on migration through Arizona -- "yet."

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