A Unique Zoo Love Story Has Ended

Walnut, a white-naped crane who attacked potential mates but bonded with her keeper, has died
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 5, 2024 1:22 PM CST
A Unique Love Story Has Ended
In this undated photo, Walnut, a white-naped crane, strolls through the gardens in her habitat at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington. The crane, who fell for her keeper at the National Zoo, has passed away at age 42.   (Chris Crowe/Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute via AP)

One of the great interspecies love stories of our time has come to an end. Walnut, a white-naped crane and internet celebrity, has passed away at age 42, reports the AP. She is survived by eight chicks, the loving staff at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, and by Chris Crowe, a human zookeeper whom Walnut regarded as her mate for nearly 20 years. "Walnut was a unique individual with a vivacious personality," Crowe said in a statement released by the National Zoo. "I'll always be grateful for her bond with me." The tale of Walnut (and Chris) has inspired internet fame and the occasional love song. It dates back to the bird's 2004 arrival at the institute's campus in Front Royal, Virginia.

The chick of two wild cranes who had been brought to the US illegally and were later rescued by the International Crane Foundation, Walnut was hand-raised and bonded with her human caretakers. That preference continued when she came to the institute; she showed no interest in breeding and even attacked male crane suitors. That was a problem because white-naped cranes are considered vulnerable. Today, less than 5,300 remain in their native habitats due to habitat loss, pollution, nest predation, and poaching. And as the offspring of two wild-caught cranes, Walnut's genes were not represented in US zoos. So convincing Walnut to breed was a priority.

In stepped Crowe, who won her over by "observing and mimicking" male white-naped cranes' actions during breeding season. Videos show Crowe offering Walnut food as well as grass and leaves for nest-building. Once Crowe had gained her trust, he was able to artificially inseminate her using sperm from a male crane. The unique arrangement proved wildly successful and Walnut gave birth to eight chicks. Fertilized eggs were given to other white-napped crane pairs who tended to them as their own. The relationship also seems to have been beneficial for Walnut's health; at 42, she nearly tripled the median life expectancy of 15 years for white-naped cranes in human care.

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"She was always confident in expressing herself, an eager and excellent dancer, and stoic in the face of life's challenges," Crowe said. "Walnut's extraordinary story has helped bring attention to her vulnerable species' plight. I hope that everyone who was touched by her story understands that her species' survival depends on our ability and desire to protect wetland habitats." (More obituary stories.)

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