Walnut, a white-crowned crane (a bird that is among the rarest in the world, and is threatened with extinction) died at the age of 42 in the USA. The bird became a phenomenon on social media after it was revealed that she fell in love with a human: animal caretaker Chris Crowe, with whom she maintained a “relationship” for almost 20 years.
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Walnut and Chris’ story goes back to her arrival at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in 2004. The daughter of a pair of wild white-crowned cranes brought illegally to the US, she was rescued by a team of from the International Crane Foundation. There, she was raised by humans and began to develop a special bond with her caregivers.
This preference continued over the years, and she showed no interest in mating. On the contrary: she even attacked male suitors. Its species, however, is considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and today there are less than 5,300 similar animals left in their native habitats in Mongolia, Siberia, Korea, Japan and China.
Convincing Walnut to breed, therefore, was considered a priority. That’s when Crowe entered the scene and gained the bird’s trust by “observing and imitating” the actions of the species’ males during their breeding period. Videos show that he offered Walnut food, as well as grass and leaves for building the nest.
At another point, when he flaps his wings in front of her, the bird responds excitedly by dancing in a half circle and shaking his head. After gaining her trust, Crowe managed to artificially inseminate her using sperm from a bird of the same species. The arrangement was a success, and Walnut had eight children.
The fertilized eggs were given to other couples of the species, who took care of them as if they were their own. Of the eight living examples at the institute, one is Walnut’s son and another is his grandson. Furthermore, her relationship with her caretaker appears to have been beneficial to her health: at 42 years old, she has almost tripled the average life expectancy for white-crowned cranes in captivity, which is typically 15 years.
“Walnut was unique and had a vivacious personality,” Crowe said in a statement released by the National Zoo. “I will always be grateful for the bond we had. She has always been confident in expressing herself; she was an avid and excellent dancer. Walnut’s extraordinary story helped draw attention to the vulnerable plight of his species.”
Starting on the morning of January 2, keepers noticed that Walnut was not eating or drinking. Not even offers of his favorite snacks could stimulate his appetite. Veterinarians administered fluids and antibiotics, and took blood for analysis. Her health, however, continued to deteriorate and she was hospitalized.
According to the institute team, she died peacefully, surrounded by caregivers. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be kidney failure.
“I hope everyone who has been touched by his story understands that the survival of his species depends on our ability and desire to protect habitats,” Crowe wrote.