The Zoo Keeper Who "Fathered" Five Chicks With A Murderous Endangered Crane

It's not what you're thinking, but it is as weird as it sounds. Image credit: Vladislav T. Jirousek / Shutterstock.com

The workplace can be a breeding ground for extramarital affairs, but you perhaps wouldn’t expect your partner to find love at the zoo. That’s however the scenario that unfolded between one man and a crane, as the bird – who’s alleged to have killed two of her past lovers – fell beak over feathers for her keeper. It’s pertinent to mention at this point that this is not a tale to be filed under “zoophilia” or “bestiality” categories as the crane’s affections were tolerated as a means of bolstering the species, but it’s certainly a love story for the ages.

It all began when a white-naped crane (Antigone vipio) named Walnut was acquired by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, in 2004 to participate in an endangered species breeding program. She was an interesting candidate for the program, having produced no chicks at the age of 23. Add to that the fact that her delayed parenthood may have something to do with her knack for killing mates and the outlook for future baby cranes grew misty.

Two males who’d attempted to win her affections were rumored to have been found with their abdomens sliced open, possibly at the tips of Walnut’s sharp claws. “Walnut had this whole ‘black widow’ thing going,” said Warren Lynch, a zookeeper at the institute, to the Washington Post. And so it was that the (no doubt nail-biting) task of convincing walnut to bear eggs fell to the zoo’s newest keeper: a young man aptly named Chris Crowe.

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Walnut was, however, to be worth the wait, as coming from wild-caught parents (who were unable to return to the wild for political reasons) meant her genetic diversity would be of great value to an insurance population of white-naped cranes. Endangered animals are bred in this way so as to have a backup should all wild animals go extinct. Provided they have enough genetic diversity, these captive groups can be released into the wild with the potential to repopulate their habitat.

It was decided via a genetic database that Walnut’s genes were a good fit for blending with a bird named Ray, but since he was already pair-bonded with a crane named Abigail (most cranes bond for life), their procreation was to be facilitated by artificial insemination. As such, a keeper grappled Walnut to the ground while Crowe injected Ray’s sperm into her cloaca.

The stressful ordeal was a success, as Walnut later produced two fertile eggs which were quickly scooped up. Removing them was intended to let Walnut and Chris off the hook of incubating them, something that’s usually split 50/50 among bird couples.

Soon after this, Crowe noticed that Walnut’s disposition had changed. When he swung by her enclosure, she’d started inviting him to engage in a mating dance. Given the end goal was to “mate” her anyway, Crowe accepted and reciprocated her head bobbing, even returning her trumpeting calls. His singing and dancing proved to be not quite enough, but when he cracked the crane love code and began bringing her nesting material, it was on.

Able to inject the sperm with Walnut’s willing participation, Crowe eventually gave rise to five chicks using his method. It was so successful in fact that he was tasked with working his magic on two other genetically valuable cranes, Amanda and Wucheng. His connection with Walnut however has endured, and despite no longer being needed for chicks Crowe continues to dance and “mate” with her to keep her happy.

walnut crowe crane
Could you keep up with the white-naped crane mating dance? Image credit: Rock Ptarmigan / Shutterstock.com

“If she’s still here when I’m eligible for retirement, I won’t be able to leave,” he told the Washington Post. “I’d feel like a jerk.”

Walnut’s unusual love story is likely the result of having been given improper human attention as a young chick. Birds born of breeding programs today are placed with either their real parents or fosters of the same species for two key reasons; a healthy fear of humans is vital to their survival, and they need to recognize their own species.

It’s feasible that if Walnut was shown too much attention by a well-meaning volunteer as a chick, she may have imprinted on that human and as such sought out a human partner upon reaching sexual maturity. It would certainly explain why she allegedly slashed the guts of two amorous male cranes, and why her love for her keeper is so profound.

At time of writing, Crowe’s marital status is unknown but in a 2018 interview he explained the unexpected way in which Walnut’s involvement could dampen his chances of real-world romance. “Walnut sets the bar pretty high,” he said. “I’ll never find a woman that’s so happy to see me that she just starts dancing.”

[H/T: Washington Post]

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