August 01, 2010

The crane preens

In the July-August 2010 issue of HouseCalls magazine is the second of a series of essays I'm doing for them over the next few months. The site is one of those replicate-the-paper-experience gadgets that I don't much care for myself, but if you do, the essay is on page 60. Please read all else that's in the magazine too.

In any case, the essay is appended below. I called it "Where the whooping crane preens", but in print it is called "The Audacity!"

All comments welcome. Including yours.

(My previous effort for HouseCalls was about a man called Agassi and a friend called Gert. Read it here.)


On the beach in Alang in Gujarat, you see ships. I mean, ON the beach. These are behemoth seafaring vessels from around the world, driven up on to the sand, then pulled further up by hand, then teams of men swarm onto them like ants, breaking them into little pieces.

One of the world's great shipbreaking yards, Alang, and a visual marvel. Ships on the sand take some getting used to; did Troy look like this for ten ancient years? When I visited Alang, I was saddened by the conditions in which the men -- migrant labour from Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa -- live and work. I don't mean to underplay that at all. Yet what most struck me in Alang was something else: the audacity, if you like, of people who tear apart ships by hand.

I think a lot about audacity, even if I hadn't expected to do so with ships in Alang. I hadn't expected it later either, with -- of all things -- cranes in a small American town. But maybe that's the thing about audacity. You don't expect it.

In the early 1970s, my mother went to the American Center in Bombay to hear a couple of young scientists, George Archibald and Ron Sauey, who had recently graduated from Cornell University. To kick off their careers, Sauey's parents gave them the use of their Wisconsin horse farm. And on that farm, they had some cranes. E-I-E-I-O, with a squawk-squawk here and a squawk-squawk there, I'm sure.

But more seriously: on that farm in 1973, Archibald and Sauey established the International Crane Foundation, aiming to save several endangered species of cranes, one native to India. Reversing a slide to extinction is, by definition, an ambitious challenge. This one fascinated my mother, a dedicated birdwatcher who had some limited success in passing that passion on to her kids. So impressed was she with Archibald and Sauey's knowledge and zeal that she went and spoke to them. That conversation began years of correspondence between her and Sauey.

Through my teens, manila packets would arrive regularly at home, with "International Crane Foundation" printed in graceful black letters on the top left. They contained copies of the ICF newsletter, "The Brolga Bugle", which she had agreed to distribute in India. At a time when my reading comprised Biggles, Blyton and Bunter, I probably did not pore over the Brolga Bugle much. But I remember being always filled with wonder that in a far off town with the exotic name of Baraboo, Wisconsin, an entire Foundation worked to breed elegant birds with long necks. Even then, I thought there was something heroic about saving another species. Some day, I promised myself, I'm going to visit.

It took me over 30 years, and Ron Sauey died suddenly in 1987, leaving conservation circles devastated. But one morning in 2008, I found myself barreling down the highway to Baraboo. On a quiet road in the middle of gently rolling farmland, I turned into a nondescript gate, parked before a small low building, bought a ticket and walked through. Behind, several large enclosures for birds.

Did my filial duty first: called my mother from outside one of the enclosures to say, I'm here where I should have been 30 years ago. She was thrilled. I don't know if she heard them from half the world away, but the cranes were in lusty voice. Maybe they were thrilled too.

Then I roamed and met, more correctly saw and admired:

* Howard and Cassasin, white-naped cranes from Japan.

* Andrew and Hugh, Brolga cranes from Australia. They gave their name to the ICF newsletter, though these days it goes, prosaically, by just "The Bugle".

* Wazi and Slidell, black-crowned cranes from Nigeria. All crane-charm, this pair bellowed loudly at me. I smiled back.

And of course:

* Majnu and Chandni, Sarus cranes from India. Up to six feet tall, with an 8-foot wingspan, the Sarus is the world's tallest flying bird.

So the cranes were charming, if noisy, and so far, the ICF had been compelling and inspiring. But this is about audacity, and I was about to run full tilt into it. Last thing I expected.

The ICF's whooping crane enclosure is another low building, with several benches for visitors. That day, there was just one bird, a gorgeous white fellow preening and grooming only a few dozen feet from where I sat, stunned. For I had just watched a video. And out of the blue, in this spot about as far in every way from that surreal Gujarat beach as it is possible to get, Alang floated into my mind. Again, unexpected. Again, audacity.

Whooping cranes are native to North America. Some years ago, their population had dropped to the point that they looked unlikely to survive. Like with other cranes, the ICF has a breeding programme in place for them. It has worked, in the sense that they have managed to raise the birds in captivity. But then researchers came up against a problem they could not easily solve. For these are migratory animals. The seasonal imperative of migration is key to their survival, to their existence itself. Absent that, a captive-bred whooping crane population will soon be an extinct whooping crane population.

In the wild, cranes learn migration from parents who have migrated before them. This is just natural. It's not quite the same as my mother teaching me the joys of bird-watching; for delightful as that pastime is, it isn't quite fundamental to my existence. But that there are behaviours that are fundamental that I've learned from her, I have no doubt. Yet consider: had I grown up parent-less in an orphanage, how would I learn those behaviours from scratch, today?

How were these young whooping cranes to learn migration?

Simple. Some researchers decided to teach them.

To me, the idea itself is staggering, breathtakingly impudent.

After all, it's one thing to disembowel seafaring vessels by hand, astonishing as that is. It's a qualitatively different thing to teach another species an instinctive behaviour. It's as if we humans had forgotten how to smile, or have sex, and elephants decided to teach us. Exactly that staggering.

The video showed how it happened. (Migration. Not elephants teaching sex). Researchers dressed up as cranes, complete with hoods and gloves painted to resemble crane body parts. This was to accustom young birds to human presence during the window in their lives when they form strong parental bonds. Thus the fledgelings came to see the suited humans as parents; that is, they "imprinted" on the humans. That done, the crane-lets learned to fly behind a tiny aircraft piloted by one of the suits. That done, they flew behind that tiny aircraft, tracing the whooping crane migratory route in hops all the way from Wisconsin to Florida. We're talking close to 2000 km. On the way, they stopped in the backyards of families who spoke to the camera. Like a husband and wife in small-town North Carolina, bemused and amused by this benign, yet slightly surreal invasion of birds, plane and crane suits.

And the birds learned. Because come the next April, when the season turned in Florida, the cranes returned on their own to Wisconsin. To where they started from. Migrating again. Cranes, but now in full measure. Staggering.

So I sat on the bench, digesting the video and remembering Alang, watching the lone whooping crane, wondering how it had fared on the Florida yatra. And now I remembered some earnest friends in the corporate world. You know, management types. I've heard these guys talk about something they call BHAGs -- Big Hairy Audacious Goals. I would mentally wave this away as just another of the innumerable infernal acronyms management is overstuffed with. Still, I picked up enough about them to know that there's a compelling logic to BHAGs: be unafraid to think big, because that's when you achieve big as well.

Setting BHAGs and then reaching for them, the thinking goes, helps organizations find direction, grow and flourish. JFK's early 1960s call to his countrymen to land on the moon before the decade was out was certainly a BHAG. If it caught a nation's imagination, may I suggest similar big thinking in the goal researchers set themselves with the whooping crane: teach another species as fundamental and instinctive a thing as migration.

Talk about audacity. Unabashed, barefaced audacity. How delicious. How stirring. Here where a whooping crane preens, how it hits me in the face.


Samir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aditya said...

Wonderfully written. Loved reading it. And Thanks for sharing!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Samir, why did you remove your comment?

Aditya, thanks! Make a trip out to the ICF sometime. Not far from Madison, WI.

Chandru K said...

Notice how D'Souza only talks about an effort like this, if a foreign interest is involved. There are, there must be, scores of such examples by Indians in India. But D'Souza can only write about Indians who are corrupt or who lie on their resume. D'Souza in his blog has not mentioned the Indians who won in Badminton, Spelling bees, Geogrphy bees, physics Olympiads, Chemistry Olympiads, Chess( Anand) and so on. But non-Indians conserving cranes in Gujarat. That's the top story. Sheesh.

Chandru K said...

The impersonator again with his sarcastic tone. It should be obvious I am the real Chandru K. This an excellent article Dcubed. These naive impersonators will keep making their comments but you keep writing your wonderful blog thank you. Since I live in Canada where they need my skills, I can understand your appreciation of this story.

Anonymous said...

does chandru even read what he comments on? now i have proof that he does not.

the essay *starts* with an "example" of indians in india. (alang)

but stranger than that is his "non-Indians conserving cranes in Gujarat". where did that come from, chandru? the article refers to a crane conservation effort in usa.

please at least read what you choose to comment on, ok?

unless you are going to say it wasnt you?

Chandru K said...

Oh, come on Anon. It's obvious that D'Souza is going at length to show foreign conservation efforts and foreign research efforts, while downplaying or ignoring any Indian venture. And my observation of D'Souza neglecting recent Indian achievements( Spelling Bees, Physics Olympiads, Chess etc) stands.

Chandru K said...

It should be obvious that I am not the simpleton who has commented above without even reading DSouza's article. Even I know that the conservation effort he refers to is in the US!

My point about him focusing on non-Indian achievements holds. But please dont confuse me with impersonators who cannot even read properly.

Anonymous said...

chandru k, am i right in what i read, that you are citing the spelling bees as "indian" achievements?

american kid wins spelling bee, chandru k gets pants in twist because he has a name like "aditya".

by the way the sp. bee winner names are here. in 2007, someone called evan o'dorney won. im sure all of ireland and its expats in canada got their pants in a twist that year.

Dilip D'Souza said...

New policy: I am deleting comments that have nothing to do with the subject of the post or the subsequent discussion, even if they belong elsewhere and are mistakenly posted. Said policy will be applied for the first time as soon as I finish this comment.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. No matter what the blog topic, the Chandru K pack attacks D'Souza. This is getting pretty boring and I fully support the removal of the ad hominem immediately and with extreme prejudice (kill -9, not kill -1)

Rajan Shastri said...

I stumbled upon your blog, I read and so I comment. I agree India needs a BHAG. For example, Nehru (and I am no fan of his) visited Ladakh after the China War debacle and he flew over a barren landscape. He postulated a BHAG, that he wished to see a Green Ladakh. Out of that BHAG was born DIHAR (Defence of India High Altitude Research). They have done a phenomenal job of greening the Leh region of Ladakh. I wish our current PM would postulate a BHAG that would channel our energies. A simple one like a Clean Country, with adequate electricity, accessible to drinking water for all and good roads, by the end of the decade, couched in some magical way would suffice.

Rajan Shastri said...

You know we Indians (myself included)tend to focus more on the negative and neglect the positive. After all we see negative stuff in our face everyday. But there are a few who have a positive energy bubbling within themselves that spurts forth in a creative ways. Some such as you, make people think, others take an active role in making a difference. Each, serves a purpose. Write on brother!

Samir said...

Sorry I removed my comment earlier. This is a brilliant article, and it'd be great if you would employ more of what I'd call the Michael Lewis-Malcolm Gladwell (MLMG) style from time to time... I name those two authors, but please don't get me wrong: I don't think they invented this style or that you're copying them or anything of the sort. The MLMG type of writing is almost always from an American perspective, so it's so much more fun to read it from a desi standpoint.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Samir, thanks! I've not read Lewis, though I have read plenty of Gladwell. I really liked his essay on plagiarism (wanted to copy it ...) but reading a whole lot ("What the Dog Saw") got under my skin.

But I get what you mean, and maybe I will think about it.