Oh Heavenly Feather: George Archibald Has Traveled to the Ends of the Earth to Save Cranes Wherever They're in Distress. His Work Is Not for the Weak of Will, but He Is Buoyed by His Faith-Both in God and in What Humans Working across Political Boundaries Can Do When They Unite around a Common Goal
Butvill, Dave Brian, Science & Spirit
IN A LAST-DITCH EFFORT to get a captive, human-imprinted whooping crane named Tex to lay an egg, bird biologist George Archibald played the part of her mate and, in the process, captured the hearts of millions of Americans. For years, he had lived in the crane's pen, helped her to construct nests out of sticks and grass, and courted her by imitating the crane mating dance--flapping his arms, bowing, and tossing sticks into the air. The performance ultimately brought Tex, a vital member of one of the most endangered bird species on Earth, into breeding condition. She was artificially inseminated and, in 1982, gave birth to a healthy baby boy crane. The act took crane conservation to new heights, landed Archibald on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show," and proved just how far the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, or ICF, would go to ensure the survival of these birds.
More than thirty years ago, with eleven of the fifteen species of crane threatened with extinction, Archibald set out on a mission to save some of the largest, most ancient, and most enchanting birds on Earth. Since then, he's been fighting to preserve their habitats--from the Himalayan highlands to the Australian outback and everywhere the birds fly in between--and, in the process, has garnered awards, including the United Nations' Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement and the Netherlands' prestigious Order of the Golden Ark.
To do his work, Archibald goes straight to the root of the problem. Cranes depend on huge expanses of grassland and wetland as both feeding and nesting grounds, and their long migrations are thought to span thousands of miles and dozens of countries. Archibald has made saving habitat on a global scale his life's work: All told, he's had a hand in saving some 13 million acres in sixty-four countries, making him one of the most influential conservationists today.
His success has come not through protest, but rather by identifying ways to make habitat protection a benefit not only to the birds, but also to local communities and nations as a whole. He fights in the name of cranes, yet in the process, he successfully has encouraged politically polarized countries, such as Russia and Germany; India and Pakistan; Afghanistan and Iran, to unite behind a common cause. It's tempting to chalk up his achievements to a mix of good luck, unwavering dedication, and political savvy. But Archibald attributes his success entirely to his faith in God and a strong belief in humanity. Science & Spirit's Dave Brian Butvill recently talked to Archibald about cranes, conservation, and the human condition.
Science & Spirit: How did it all start?
George Archibald: After finishing my doctorate at Cornell [in 1971], I had this opportunity to work on a big conservation program in Japan, followed by work in Australia for the final four months. It was a wonderful baptism into the reality of cranes, the real problems. I experienced how cranes were faring in a northern, very cold, and populated country, as well as a very hot and unpopulated one. Just before leaving, friend and colleague Ron Sauey and I had decided to start [the world's first] center dedicated to preserving crane species. Ron's father owned a vacant farm in central Wisconsin, and he offered to let us use it for a dollar a year to get started. As soon as I got to Japan, I began writing the goals and objectives of our new organization. At the same time, Ron was converting horse stalls into crane pens, funded by his parents.
S&S: Since then, you've personally gone to some serious extremes to save cranes, such as the years you spent "courting" Tex. Why put so much effort into one bird?
GA: Well, Tex was a very special whooping crane. Her parents were alive back in the 1950s, when there were very few whooping cranes, so her genetic line was extremely important. …