A bird who doesn't heed the call of the wild

The Colorado sandhill crane "Baby" interacts with his preferred company - a human.
The Colorado sandhill crane "Baby" interacts with his preferred company - a human. Ed Kosmicki / photosourcewest.com
/ Source: NBC News

At a wildlife sanctuary in western Colorado, a three-year-old sandhill crane nicknamed "Baby" is listening to talk radio. It's not the words that have Baby's attention, it's the sound of the human voice.  Baby, standing three feet tall and weighing 13 pounds, is a bird with an identity problem.

"This is a bird that doesn't know he's a bird," says Nancy Limbach, who runs the Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation near Silt, Colorado. "I put the radio in his cage, because he clearly likes the sound of people talking."

In the early spring, thousands of sandhill cranes make their northern migration through the flyways of the western Rocky Mountains. They flock to lakes and reservoirs for food and rest before continuing their flight toward Montana and Idaho.  While the wild birds feel the urge to move on as the weather grows warmer, Baby prefers cat food and a steady supply of worms from the local bait store.

'Baby' doesn't heed the call of the wild
Three years ago, a ranch hand from the town of Nucla found a tiny bird-chick. Dogs had killed or scared off the rest of the flock. According to friends and neighbors, Roberto Lozano fed the chick cat food from a bowl.

As it grew older, the bird walked and flew around the tiny farming community. The bird sat on the porch, and would sometimes fly to a nearby playground. Lozano named the bird Baby.

That might have been the end of the story, except the ranch hand was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He asked friends to please return Baby to the wild. Lozano's condition deteriorated; he died in late March.

Enter Coen Dexter, an ornathologist, and his wife Brenda Wright. They took Baby to a field next to a large reservoir known for flocks of sandhills. They released Baby from its cage.

"It was a beautiful day,” recalled Wright. "We said ‘Be free! be free!’ But, Baby took a nap nearby as we ate our lunch. We tried to walk away and the bird just followed us."

The couple tried to sneak away and get in their truck. Baby did not answer the call of the wild. "Unfortunately the crane was so imprinted on people it would just not become a crane," said Dexter.

The Wrights watched as Baby fell into step with a pair of hikers. And when the Wrights tried to drive away, Baby flew loops over the truck.

Just likes people
For about a week, Baby mingled with the wild cranes at the reservoir. Evelyn Horn, a local birdwatcher, saw Baby browsing for food near the water, but the bird would walk up to anyone in the area, and follow them like a puppy. Horn nicknamed the bird, "Fido."

Baby walking around a marsh

"I saw a bird that wanted to be up close and personal with people," Horn said. "It was looking for a friend."

After Baby tried to befriend a rancher on an ATV, and "freaked out" at the sound of hundreds of wild sandhill cranes nesting on the reservoir, the Wrights knew it was time for therapy.

Their hope was that Baby could be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. But, the last three weeks at the Wildlife Foundation's center have shown that, as a bird, Baby has no sense of self.

He is attracted to people, even showing the spread-wing/puffed up chest activity of a breeding male — the mating dance is not for a another bird, but for Nancy Limbach, who runs the sanctuary.

What will become of Baby?  There are plenty of offers to adopt, and a children's book author is even planning to write about Baby.  The final decision is in the hands of both federal and state wildlife officials. Limbach says zoo life could be the good life for Baby, "regular meals, and lot's of people to relate to every day."

Limbach hopes that the paperwork can be completed and a suitable zoo found in the next two months. Until then, there's talk radio. The local farm report, or Rush Limbaugh — it doesn't matter, Baby just likes to listen.