The Crane who Loved Me: Zookeeper Mourns Bird who Chose Him as Mate

Chris Crowe/Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Walnut was hand-raised as a chick after her parents were brought to the United States and rescued by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., the zoo said.

She had a long, elegant neck and orange eyes. He was a jeans-and-hoodie guy. She was a white-naped crane named Walnut, who chose him as her partner. He was Chris Crowe, her keeper at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who tried to mimic the part.

Their bond lasted almost 20 years and made headlines. He was the only person she tolerated. And with his arm-flapping imitation of a male crane, he eased the artificial insemination that helped her produce eight chicks for her vulnerable species.

She died last month in the institute’s hospital in Front Royal, Va., with him and others at her side. He said he was devastated.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo announced Wednesday that Walnut died Jan. 2 of kidney failure. She was 42, more than twice the median life expectancy of 15 for white-naped cranes in human care, the zoo said in a statement.

“She had chosen me as her mate,” Crowe said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We were a big part of each other’s lives. Certainly my workday was focused a lot on her, spent an awful lot of time with her.”

“We try to give the animals enrichment to make them happy and fulfilled,” he said. “The best enrichment for her was just me being around, you know, keeping her company.”

White-naped cranes are native to Mongolia, Siberia, Korea, Japan and China, the zoo said. There are only about 5,300 in their native habitats. They are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Walnut was hand-raised as a chick after her parents were brought to the United States and rescued by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., the zoo said.

“She was hand-raised by people instead of other cranes,” Crowe said. “The birds, the first two days of their lives, they’ll imprint and model their behavior on whatever big thing is raising them.”

Because her parents had been caught in the wild, her genes were valuable for breeding in North American zoos. But she showed no interest in breeding with other cranes and reportedly attacked several potential mates.

In 2004, Walnut came to the institute, where scientists can breed cranes using artificial insemination.

Crowe began observing interactions among other cranes at the facility. He realized that by flapping his arms like wings and giving Walnut food and nesting materials he could simulate the conduct of a mate and make her more receptive to his approach.

Once she responded, he could inseminate her with sperm from a male crane without having to physically restrain her, the zoo said.

The process normally would take two people. “Basically you hold them for 10, 20 seconds,” Crowe said.

But once he and Walnut bonded, “she started doing courtship displays for me and she would actually solicit me to mate with her, and just stand there with her wings open,” he said.

Walnut was about four feet tall and weighed about 10 pounds. She was light gray and had a long white strip running down the back of her neck. She had a long beak and red patches around her eyes.

“She really didn’t like other people,” Crowe said. “She’d be very territorial and aggressive around other keepers and other staff. … She was pretty fearless and confident.”

“I kind of wore her down,” he said.

Roshan Patel/Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Walnut and her keeper, Chris Crowe, in 2021. Walnut, a white-naped crane, 42, died Jan. 2, 2024, in Front Royal, Va.

Walnut began to show symptoms of illness the morning of her death, Crowe said. She was in her outdoor enclosure. “I noticed she wasn’t eating or drinking, and didn’t seem herself,” he said. “We called the vets.”

“She was not moving around, and it just got worse, so we brought her to the hospital to do more treatments and try and get her to eat more,” he said.

There she declined rapidly. Oxygen was administered. But “her body was shutting down,” he said. “Then she stopped breathing.”

“It was pretty upsetting,” he said. “It’s still upsetting. It was sad for everybody. Pretty devastating.”

“It was pretty quick,” he said. “I’m glad she died somewhat peacefully. … Any time an animal dies it’s upsetting, certainly a lot more so with her.”