What’s so natural about nature?

Birders have long maintained highly effective communication networks. A sighting of a rare bird will rapidly spread among hardcore birders and scores of onlookers will flock, pun intended, to the best finds. Nearly universal access to the Internet has kicked these networks into overdrive. Now, within minutes of a rare find georeferenced coordinates and digital photos will be disseminated to websites, listservs, cell phones, twitter feeds and Facebook pages. This is the practice known as “chasing” birds brought into the 21st century.


The boy sees his first cranes!

Now, I don’t usually chase birds. It isn’t because I don’t want to necessarily, but more so because I never seem to be afforded the time. But, when I heard of a Hooded Crane (Grus monacha) found with wintering Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) and Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, Tennessee I decided maybe it was worth the chase. I’ve seen Japanese or Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) in Japan and Taiwan and many Sandhill Cranes but I’ve never seen a Whooping Crane or a Hooded Crane so there was the chance for hitting a double on this trip. Plus, with the holiday break I had a nature-obsessed 6-year old boy out of school and in need of a little adventure. So, a 5 hour drive south on I-75 and we are at Hiwassee, and the trip didn’t disappoint; eagles, turkey, bluebirds, kingfishers, waterfowl, and many, many cranes, almost ridiculous numbers of cranes. Hiwassee is home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes whiling away the winter on a steady diet of East Tennessee corn. The Sandhills are typically accompanied by a couple of Whooping Cranes every year and, as of December 13th of this year, one very disorientated Hooded Crane, who should be spending the winter in Japan or China and returning to breeding ground in the Russian Far East in the spring. Needless to say this Hooded Crane was more than a little off course!


Three species of crane at Hiwassee Refuge; Sandhill (grey), Whooping (white) and Hooded (black with white neck)

There are currently three very recent records of Hooded Crane in the United States, one sighting in Idaho in 2010 and another earlier in the year in Nebraska. I do not know of any reliable records prior to 2010. There is some debate about the origin of these birds. Are they wild wanderers from East Asia or escaped captive birds from zoos or private collections? The latter seems to me unlikely as the number of captive individuals is comparatively few and captive cranes are often pinioned or otherwise prevented from flying off. Plus, it doesn’t seem like anyone is coming forward with reports of missing stock from their collections. So, seems likely the Hooded Crane at Hiwassee is indeed a true vagrant from Asia, but listing committees at the American Birding Association will surely debate this for some time to come. The boy and I will however count this bird on our lists, even though it’s “official” status may be up-in-the-air.


This was a great trip. The boy and I, along with a few dozen other birders, got great looks at both Whooping Cranes and, with a little patience, the Hooded Crane. But, the experience got me thinking more about something that for me has come up time and time again in the field. Hiwassee is a great place for birding. A covered observation platform offered a fantastic view of the fields and wetlands of the Hiwassee Refuge and Blythe Ferry Goose Management Area. Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were feeding in the cornfields along the banks of the Hiwassee River alongside geese and turkey. At first glance this is quintessential nature; the great outdoors overflowing with wildlife. But, what are we looking at here? Is this a “natural” landscape? Hundreds of cranes in the corn fields of Hiwassee RefugeObviously, no. This is not a scene out of North America’s ancient past and not a picture reflective of the vast majority of the evolutionary history of these birds. These are highly managed areas. Cornfields are planted to attract cranes that feed on waste corn in the winter, like enormous backyard birdfeeders. Ironically, the Hooded Crane too is highly managed in East Asia. Approximately 75% of the entire world population of Hooded Cranes of about 10,000 individuals is maintained in the winter at feeding stations in Izumi, Japan (Archibald and Meine. 1996. Family Gruidae. Pp. 60-89. In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. Handbook of birds of the World, Volume 3. Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona). The Whooping Crane is an example of wildlife management in the extreme with the foster rearing of Whooping Crane eggs by Sandhill Cranes, the raising of chicks by researchers and wildlife managers donning white cleanroom suits and Whooping Crane hand-puppets, and airborne caravans of young cranes led by human pilots in ultralight aircraft. In the absence of these Herculean efforts Hooded Cranes would likely and Whooping Cranes would certainly be extinct while Sandhill Cranes would probably be less in number.

All this management in my opinion is fine and good, perhaps it’s what we owe the cranes in light of the numerous insults other, more detrimental human activities have levied against wildlife populations. Without these efforts my son and I and the thousands of other birders out there would be less able to enjoy these animals, but I think we need to be keenly aware of what we are looking at as birders. These are not wild places and because they are not truly wild places the animals in them are not truly wild themselves.  In the case of a cornfield this fact should be obvious to a birder but there are many habitats where the long history of human activity is much less obvious but just as influential. Forest soils are tilled by exotic earthworms brought by human settlers and plants pollinated by exotic insects also brought over by those same European immigrants to North America. Much earlier immigrants to the Americas likely brought the large megafauna so integral to a great many ecosystems in prehistoric America to extinction. Most people around the globe are largely unaware of the distinction between a wild place and either a managed or otherwise human altered place much less how ingrained these human alterations have become to ecosystems. Seeing a crane in a management area like Hiwassee is somewhere between seeing a bird in a wilderness area and a zoo.

To a biologist, sites like Hiwassee, while wonderful places to enjoy wildlife, are as much human constructs as a city street. Humans began altering North America as soon as they walked across the Bering Land Bridge and altered it much more in that much later wave of immigration. Animals like Sandhill, Whooping and Hooded Cranes are in a gray area between wild and captive animals. The American Birding Association and birders around the country will discuss the possibility of this bird being of captive origin, but really this Hooded Crane and all the cranes at Hiwassee are in a quasi-captive state, dependent on managed landscapes and in the case of Whooping Cranes very direct human activity and, through the internet enabled network of bird spotters, accessed almost as easily as any zoo animal. This wayward Hooded Crane has apparently exchanged one feeding station in Japan for another in Tennessee and made available to eager bird chasers via the World Wide Web.