Wings across the Desert: The Incredible Motorized Crane Migration.—David H. Ellis. 2001. Hancock House Publishers, Blaine, Washington. 181 pp., 40 color plates. ISBN 0-88839-480-2. $17.95 paper.
Each spring I am asked by student naturalists and scientists for my recommendations on a book or two to read during the summer when they are away from school. In my response, I want my recommendations to demonstrate the excitement of our sciences, the importance of our efforts, and at the same time demonstrate the humanity of the scientist writers. Wings Across the Desert is now clearly one of the top five books on my list. The book is not about elegant laboratory experiments, major ecosystem studies, or “paradigm shifts,” but rather it shows the work and dreams of a naturalist and behaviorist in his efforts to train domestically reared Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) to migrate. Most importantly, the book shows the humanity of the scientists traveling this improbable and frustrating journey. Books about science almost always disregard the joys and excitement of our successes, minimize the frustrations of failed experiments, skirt the exasperation we face when our animal subjects do not respond, ignore feelings of respect and sorrow for animals that die as a result of our search for knowledge, or evade questions about our own motivations in seeing the project through. Ellis addresses these emotions head on. I want our students to know that accepting one's humanity as a scientist is okay. I can only hope that they see the joy and excitement of this scientific endeavor.
I feel obligated to ask if the author achieved his objectives in this easy to read publication. The author told us that he simply wanted to tell the tale of two attempts to train Sandhill Cranes to follow a truck across a 400-mile (640 km) migration route from north-central Arizona to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge south of Tucson. Exercising literary license in a nontechnical manner, the author collapsed 1995 and 1996 migrations into a single story and ultimately succeeded in bringing the tale alive.
These Sandhill Cranes, of course, were surrogates in efforts to produce one or more migratory flocks of the endangered Whooping Crane (Grus americana). The history of Whooping Crane conservation will undoubtedly have little to say about these efforts. But this test of motorized migration training using a land vehicle was a logical step. We now know that Whooping Cranes can be trained to follow ultralight aircraft, and that following a motorized truck was not an appropriate technique. The hypothesis had to be tested and it was.
The passion of those on this migration journey clearly caught my attention. I even pulled out an old copy of an Arizona road map to follow the migration from one small community to the next. Where indeed is the small town of Yarnell, Arizona, where not one resident even acknowledged the strange entourage that included a large “cranemobile” with two chase vehicles and a flock of Sandhill Cranes flying in formation down the main street? Where indeed was the prison yard that attracted three wayward cranes, and where the warden warned the author that the inmates had grown attached to the cranes and that any attempts to remove the birds that resulted in injury to the cranes might invoke a riot? Where was the fourth grade classroom, including students, where four birds were being kept and where the floor was now nicely covered with fecal matter?
The author clearly goes to great pains to report on the interactions of the team that shared in the great adventure. The tales and color plates in the book show the efforts of the team members that participated in the 400-mile journey. Giving credit to the team, while shouldering responsibilities as team leader, is a lesson we can all learn.
Certainly like all works, this book has its share of shortcomings. Although the author explains that his publisher wanted a chapter on the history of Whooping Crane conservation, and despite the acknowledgment that the chapter interrupts the narrative, the material should have been incorporated into the preface or the ending of the book. Despite a slight exaggeration of the number of Whooping Cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge flock, I found the book to have few significant shortcomings.
Ellis' book has addressed one of the most difficult problems facing endangered species conservation: How do we teach birds to be wild again? In his attempt to train the cranes, he effectively used anecdotes and story telling, thereby clearly showing his voice. The entire motorized migration research effort begins with, “Basically, we have no idea what we're doing,” and the story ends with the admonition for those interested in pursuing land-based motorized migration training, “Please don't try it …but if you do, first give me a jingle.” After reading Wings across the Desert I feel that I understand the author's passion, humor, fears, and frustrations. Wings across the Desert is a nontechnical book for ornithologists and behaviorists. I am sure that serious enthusiasts of birds and conservation will find this publication a great read as well. If you are asked for a recommendation from a student of any age, I encourage you to suggest Wings across the Desert.