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The Saga of the Hooded Crane(s): The Plot Thickens

When a bird never before reported in the ABA Area appears, birders usually come flocking, enduring heat, cold, insects, landfill smells, and even other birders to look for the waif. One of the great joys of our clan is seeing a species we’ve never seen before. But what do birders do when the species is held in captivity in North America? The saga of the Hooded Crane provides a fascinating example of this quandary.

Like many species of waterfowl, cranes are held in captivity of many sorts, primarily zoos and crane breeding programs, but also in some cases smaller facilities, where they are often “on loan” from larger institutions. When Californians found a Demoiselle Crane in San Joaquin County in October 2001, for instance, it was considered almost certainly an escapee, and didn’t draw many admirers (though possibly the same bird was noted in British Columbia and Alaska the next year—so could it have been wild?).

And when a Hooded Crane appeared with Sandhill Cranes in April 2010 in Carey, Idaho, it was assumed that the bird had not flown over from Russia but instead had escaped from captivity somewhere in North America. When birders then learned that several Hooded Cranes that had been at a private game park called “For the Birds” near Nampa, Idaho, were no longer there—and that their current whereabouts were unknown—we reasonably assumed that the Carey crane had come from the Nampa area. Few people came to look for the bird, and no further research was conducted into the Nampa birds. The Idaho Bird Records Committee did not review the record. End of story—right?

Hooded Crane
Hooded Crane – near Carey, Idaho, April 2010. Photograph by Robert Mortenson.

Fast-forward one year to Hall County, Nebraska, April 2011: another Hooded Crane appears, possibly the same individual seen in Idaho. This time, local birders come out in much greater numbers. Why? Well, Nebraska has a few records of Common Crane, also from Eurasia, and they’re more accustomed to considering rare cranes as possibly wild vagrants, especially when found among their many tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and handful of migrant Whooping Cranes. As the Nebraska Hooded Crane was being seen, Mark Brogie, Chair of the state’s records committee, began researching holdings of Hooded Cranes in North America, and his research is ongoing, but he has been kind enough to share with ABA what he has discovered to date.

Now that a Hooded Crane has turned up in Meigs County, Tennessee, and is still being seen there as of this posting, the Tennessee records committee will also be looking at questions of provenance. With over 2500 visitors, coming from 40 states and 10 countries, the Hooded in Tennessee is by far the most visited of the three noted in the wild in North America, and we at ABA could not resist the opportunity to ask the question: could any of these birds in fact be wild, as unlikely a supposition as this might have seemed a year ago?

We had no idea what kind of a wild ride we were in for!

Hooded Cranes, it turns out, are not numerous in captivity in North America, numbering only in the dozens, and they are very well tracked, with most individuals assigned a numeric code in the “stud book”. That reference also contains information on the sex of the bird, the date and location of hatching, date and cause of death, leg bands, and history of transfers.

Through this reference, through ISIS (<www.isis.org>), and through many conversations with crane breeders, researchers, and curators, records committee sleuths have been able to track down almost all captive Hooded Cranes to their facilities, or from one facility to the next. The research of Mark Brogie and others has determined, thus far, that all but four captive Hooded Cranes have been accounted for—the birds last seen at “For the Birds.”

This tale is one right out of Hollywood. On 27 October 2007, the owner of “For the Birds” animal park, Jerry L. Korn, was admitted to the local hospital. When he was released from the hospital in December of that year, he claims that the Hooded Cranes in his care (and much else) were missing from his property. There are suspicions about what happened, but at the time of this posting, no one searching for information, including crane researchers, has been able to discover the whereabouts of these cranes.

Mark Brogie has learned that these four “missing” cranes were females, hatched in 1988 and 1989, that three of them wore leg bands, and that all four had been surgically pinioned (that is, their outer primaries were permanently removed) at the facility where they were hatched, the Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo), which had loaned the birds to Korn. (Mark Brogie, who has spoken directly with people responsible for caring for these birds, and has inquired specifically about their ability to fly, has been promised the veterinary records to confirm the pinioning of these individuals.) So three of these birds would have had leg bands and purportedly none was capable of sustained flight. Without a male in the group, reproduction in the wild would not have been possible. Moreover, the Idaho bird seen at Carey was capable of strong flight, according to birders who went to see it.

But what are the odds that four Hooded Cranes are deemed “missing” in Idaho in late 2007 and that a wild one would turn up in that state four years later? Most of us might think: not good. And so questions persist. Whatever happened to those lost cranes? And is it conceivable that a bird rendered unable to fly (or fly far) by pinioning could regain the ability to fly (or at least fly the 130 miles from the Nampa area to Carey)?

Ready for the next twist? Robert Mortensen, ABA’s ‘Bird of the Year’ Coordinator, grew up in Nampa, Idaho—and went to school with Jerry’s son Christopher! Robert writes: “I remember pressing my nose up against the school bus window to look at his assortment of strange-looking birds in large netted pens along the I-84 freeway. Everyone going from Nampa to Boise in those days would remember the sight of the Korn place.” Robert went to see the Hooded Crane near Carey (photograph above), with his father-in-law, despite lingering questions about the provenance of the cranes, which according to local rumor had been taken by a family member during Mr. Korn’s hospital stay. “I am left with even more questions than before and I am still seeking answers,” Robert writes. “I’ve been reaching out to my Idaho birding friends, connections to the International Crane Foundation, and folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see if they can clear up any part of the story. I’ve even tracked down my old classmate (who has apparently changed his surname) to see if he knows or remembers anything about the Hooded Crane mystery, but he has not replied as yet.”

It turns out that ABA’s Web Developer, Greg Neise, worked for long spell at the famous Lincoln Park Zoo and has good contacts in the zoological world. Recently, he interviewed Donald Bruning, who was Curator of Birds at the Wildlife Conservation Society during the 1980s. Although Bruning did not specifically recall the four Hooded Cranes sent to Mr. Korn’s facility, he did say that the Bronx Zoo was successful in breeding the birds in those years and that several were sent to be paired with birds connected to the International Crane Foundation (ICF). He said it would be not uncommon for birds to be transferred to ICF, paired up, and then sent to a breeder working within the program, such as Mr. Korn presumably was. He suggested that if there were only four females at Mr. Korn’s facility, then it would seem that they were waiting for a male.

Greg also interviewed Brant Tarr, Curator of Birds at ICF, who said that Hooded Cranes are so rare, both in captivity and in the wild, and that the captive birds are so well documented, that it would seem “almost impossible” for the Tennessee bird to be an escapee without the crane conservation community in the United States being aware of the loss. Bruning suggested that pinioned cranes could possibly, in very rare cases, regain some ability to fly. In the case of pinioning, however, the outer primaries would always be missing, which would be noticeable in a well-watched bird like the Tennessee crane. In recent years, tendonectomy has become the preferred method of rendering a crane flightless: because cranes use their wings during courtship dancing, pinioned birds have tended to be less successful in securing a mate. Tarr also said that any of the cranes in captivity, especially any bird in a facility such as “For the Birds,” would have an “affinity for people” and would not behave like a wild bird.

Greg made inquiries of zoo veterinarians, and none of them had ever heard of a bird that had the wing tendon severed ever regaining the ability to fly. So, it would seem that if the crane being seen in Tennessee was one of the “missing four,” it would still be identifiable, because the outer primaries would be missing. Hooded Cranes in the Bronx facility during the period that these four females (known as #172, #173, #182, and #183) hatched were always pinioned, according to curators there.

So at the moment, with only the Sea World facility in San Diego not yet reporting on their Hooded Cranes but other facilities confirming that theirs have not escaped, it is becoming more difficult to designate recent North American records of Hooded Crane as pertaining to former captives.

Is there a black market for cranes? Possibly. Is it more likely that an undocumented captive Hooded Crane (or several of them) have been responsible for recent records in North America—or that wild birds might have strayed from Eurasia? This is the question that the ABA Checklist Committee, should they take up the matter, will deliberate in years to come. Stay tuned!

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Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley has edited North American Birds, ABA's journal of ornithology, full time since 2001 and contributed over 120 articles to birding journals and magazines since 1982. He started birding at age six in southeastern Virginia, with the Great Dismal Swamp and the Gulf Stream being perennial favorite patches. In the subsequent 40 years, he has birded and led birding tours on five continents, taught European literature and film at the University of Virginia, opened a birding bed-and-breakfast inn on Virginia's Eastern Shore, participated in research projects on seabirds, and written a few books, including Virginia's Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist (with Steve Rottenborn), The National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, and a children's book on birds in the Reader's Digest Pathfinders series.
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