Chris Crowe has a girlfriend. She stands a leggy 5 feet tall, weighs a trim 11 pounds, and sports a set of wings like you’ve never seen. Walnut the white-naped crane is the most genetically distinct endangered crane on the block — which means she needs to have been making babies, like, yesterday.
Walnut was raised by humans at a zoo, and as a result, she recognizes and trusts humans — and is deeply hostile to other cranes. How hostile? She killed the two male cranes that her former keepers attempted to pair with her. "I like to jokingly tell people that Walnut ‘allegedly’ killed two male cranes," Crowe says. "It’s not like she was tried and convicted. We don’t know her side of the story."
Following the incidents, Walnut was transferred to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, where she met Chris. Her new keepers were eager to see her mate with somebody. Anybody. So when she lifted her wings in a mating dance and let fly the sensual woo-wooooo that can only mean one thing, her keepers were inclined to give her what she wanted. Namely, Chris. And because cranes can live up to 60 years in captivity, Chris isn’t getting out of this anytime soon.
Walnut could have chosen worse: her guy has always had a soft spot for animals, particularly endangered species. In the past, his conservation work sent him into the field, where he worked with California condors, red wolves, and black-footed ferrets. Now, he cares for 24 cranes. "I like getting to know these animals individually and giving them the best captive life they can have," he says.
Chris and Walnut’s pairing is an odd one: her species has every reason to mistrust ours. Our agriculture, dams, and pollution have ravaged the wetlands where cranes breed and feed.
Walnut is part of what is called a security population, maintained to keep the species going if ever the wild population were to suddenly disappear. "She is an excellent ambassador for her species," Crowe says. "People always remember her story, and if they remember her, hopefully they’ll also remember that habitat loss is driving cranes to extinction."
With only 5,000 members left in her species worldwide, Walnut’s celibacy represents a shirking of civic duty. A crane who has not yet mated can contribute new traits to the species’ gene pool, so Walnut is a primo listing in the Studbook, a directory used by zoos to find mates for members of endangered species. "It’s basically eHarmony for cranes," says Crowe. Because Walnut has imprinted on humans, however, she is simply never going to get with a crane — that’s how two male cranes ended up dead, after all.
Chris, on the other hand, she seemed to like. "Pairing in the wild consists of elaborate courtship displays and vocalizations that can only progress to actual pairing if there is mutual interest," says Crowe. "If birds are uninterested, they communicate it through visual and vocal threats or fly away." Chris did not fly away. Each day he greeted her warmly, called her a pretty girl, asked about her day, brought her mice. He joined her in picking up objects and tossing them synchronously into the air. When Walnut said dance, he danced. When she said bob your head, he asked how hard. When she made her unison call, ululating into the wind, he echoed. "I sounded like Homer Simpson. You know….woo hoo!" Crowe says. "I actually make a lousy crane, but she likes me anyway."
Eventually it was time to get down to business: artificial insemination. Normally, cranes must be restrained for artificial insemination, which can stress an animal enough to hurt the chances of pregnancy. But if birds have a mate, the companionship makes them calmer, more resilient to stress — and they also avoid artificial insemination, or AI, altogether. So Chris wanted to give Walnut a true boyfriend experience. "Given Walnut’s imprinted nature and apparent attraction to me it seemed like it might be possible to train her to accept the AI without restraint," he says. "I didn’t know if it would work, but I thought I owed it to her to try."
Two months before breeding season began, Chris began to make his move. He was careful and patient: "She set the pace for the training, it only occurred if she approached me, and would stop if she walked away," he says. "Eventually she would stay still and let me pet her. As soon as breeding season began, she started soliciting me to mate by turning her back, opening and trembling her wings, and lowering her head." But she still had to be trained to accept Chris’s touch without restraints. By reaching toward her and saying "touch" as many times as it took, he taught Walnut to associate the word with sweet, non-threatening caresses. Eventually, Chris won her trust and got the job done.
Chris’ relationship with Walnut has lasted 10 years, longer than any of his human relationships thus far. He and Walnut now have six children and three grandchildren together. At 35 and 38 years young, respectively, Walnut and Chris look forward to many happy years ahead. He visits Walnut three times a day and has no plans for a career change. "I like to joke that our relationship gives me great job security, but she would eventually bond with another keeper provided they were male and took the time to court her," he says.
Like that just comes along every day, Chris.