A “geriatric millennial” born in 1981, Walnut the white-naped crane is part of an endangered species. She was born in a barn in Wisconsin owned by the International Crane Foundation. Walnut was raised on this compound by dedicated volunteers working to protect the existence of her species. However, Walnut was also born at a time when protocols to prevent the birds from imprinting on humans were not yet fully developed and implemented.
Walnut ended up not being able to get along with other cranes because she doesn’t know that she is one. She imprinted on—socially and emotionally bonded with, during her most formative years—humans, so she identifies with humans. Put simply, Walnut thinks she’s people.
To put it in slightly more Freudian terms, Walnut was always going to seek a mate who looked like her parents. Since Walnut thought humans were her parents, Walnut reacted to mating attempts from eligible crane bachelors in much the same way that any adult human woman would react: with revulsion.
Being a bit on the feral side for an actual human, of course, Walnut was also a little bit rougher in her rejections than the average human woman might be. By the age of 23, Walnut had yet to produce any chicks—or even mate. And both of her would-be suitors had been found dead. Their bellies—so the rumor goes—had been slit open by sharp claws that could only belong to Walnut.
Walnut was sent to a special crane conservation refuge, specifically for birds that can’t get along with other birds. That same year, a new keeper arrived on the scene. His name (you can’t make this up) is Chris Crowe. And something happened to Walnut that had never happened before: she fell in love.
Because Walnut fell in love with Chris, she willingly allowed Chris to artificially inseminate her (with, erm, supply obtained from a male crane on the preserve). Chris, of course, had to perform crane mating dances and courtships (to the best of his ability, anyway: arms are never gonna be wings).
According to a reporter for The Washington Post who observed them together, Chris had to approach and stroke Walnut “almost pornographically” in order to keep the “romance” alive. But they ultimately produced five chicks together this way, which is a very big deal in terms of helping preserve the species.
Since white-naped cranes mate for life, Chris admits that Walnut may complicate his retirement plans. “I’d feel like a jerk,” he says, if he were to retire while Walnut is still housed at this refuge. She’d be very lonely without him.
Even now, when it’s unlikely that Crowe will be called upon to artificially inseminate Walnut again, Walnut continues to lay unfertilized eggs, and Crowe replaces them with fake eggs then helps her watch over them. Walnut loves Crowe unconditionally now—a lesson Crowe says we could all learn from animals—and would be lost without him.
For his part, Crowe says that it’s because of humans devastating the environment that Walnut has to live this way (and reproduce this way) to begin with.
“I thought, if we’re causing all those extinctions and endangerments, then we are also the solution,” Crowe says. “We should be responsible for the solution, since we are causing the problem to begin with.”