The Bird Man of Arkansas

by Andrew J. Müller

Extracts from the Journal of John ‘Mac’ Cooley, Dirt-Farmer
Split Tree River, Arkansas, USA


It was shortly after the first shoots of Spring appeared that the accident happened. I was out on 30-Mile Field, the other end of my land from my homestead, making sure that the crows weren’t gettin’ to me wheat shoots when I lost control of my old 20s tractor. The steerin’ had been goin’ for a good few months an’ I guess I kinda knew that it’d be sooner rather than later that I’d loose it altogether. I was harin’ along the edge of the field when a wheel musta hit a buried log or some such ‘cos it knocked the wheel straight outta my hand. The tractor turned sharp right and crashed down the slope into the irrigation canal. It went through a loadda bushes as it careered outta control. A whole lotta birds flew squawking up into the sky and I was thrown clean off the seat, which was just as well ‘cos that ol’ tractor turned turtle and I guess I would been a goner if I’d have stayed put.

I picked myself up and painfully dusted myself down. A trickle of blood was running down my face and my ribs ached like hell, but I was otherwise okay. A few feet in front of me was a big white bird that hadn’t been so lucky. It must have been a real handsome bird before it got squashed by a big tractor wheel. I went over to it. For some reason I still haven’t been able to figure out I felt real moved by this one dead bird, it made me cry there and then. I knelt down by its cooling body, there was one of them rings ‘round its leg. It carefully removed it and dug a little hole for the bird’s grave. I buried it, I still don’t quite know why. It was then I noticed a nest with what turned out to be 9 speckly brown eggs in it. How they’d avoided being squashed by the tractor like their mother I’ll never know.

I took off my coat and wrapped the eggs in it, not knowing quite what I was going to do with them. It seemed about the only thing I could do to make amends. I looked down at the tractor where it lay still gently steaming in the dirty red water of the irrigation channel. Well, I could come back for that later with proper equipment for gettin’ it outta there. I gathered up my precious little bundle of eggs and pocketed the ring from the dead bird’s leg and headed back to home.

When I arrived it was getting on for evening. I wasn’t sure whether or not the eggs could have survived the long walk, but I took them into the chicken coop anyhow and fired up the incubator. I didn’t really know what the eggs were, even if they belonged to the white bird, but I set the incubator to the same warmth as for chicken eggs and placed the eggs carefully into the incubator.

Then I went inside and phoned the number on the ring-tag; it was a Denver code. It turned out the eggs belonged to the very rare Whooping Crane. The woman on the other end of the phone was horrified at what I’d done but delighted that I’d put the eggs into the incubator. She said she’d come over tomorrow.

The Following Day

When the door rang and the woman from Denver arrived I had been up for four hours already. I had checked on the eggs first thing, and they seemed to be okay, just warm to touch which was always how a chicken egg needed to be. The woman was just a slip of a girl really, not long outta college I reckoned. She had red hair cut into a bob and was dressed in a long black coat and trouser suit. Seemed it was some kinda fashion out there in TV land. She was kinda pretty though, and only about four feet tall. She dumped a heavy briefcase on my kitchen table and opened it up. Inside were loads of papers, booklets and stuff. She began to remove the papers and pile them up.

"Do you want a cup of coffee, Miss…?"

"Sanderson. And yes, I’d love a cup of coffee, black, no sugar. And it’s Doctor."

"Sure thing, doc." I went to pour a cup of coffee from the morning’s re-heated grounds. "So these birds a pretty rare critters, eh?"

"They certainly are Mr Cooley, the rarest there are." She didn’t look up from her papers as I brought the coffee over. "At the last count there were only 300 breeding pairs. Well, 299 now."

I grimaced at the comment. "I’m real sorry about that, looked like one pretty bird."

She sipped her coffee and tried not to screw up her face ‘cos it was so bitter. "Well, I’m pleased to say you did the right thing by bringing the eggs in and contacting us."

"Good. Glad I got something right. Sorry ‘bout the coffee, but this is country coffee now, Miss, not city coffee."

She said nothing, but clipped her briefcase shut. "I’ll leave this here and I suggest you read it, it will tell you how to bring up the Whooping Crane chicks. Now if you don’t mind I’d like to see this incubator of yours." She stood up, and I noticed hadn’t touched her coffee again.

I deliberately gulped down the rest of my coffee, although it was a bit too bitter even for my tough old taste buds. "Sure thing, Miss, follow me." I could feel her bristle as I walked past her and out into the backyard.

Surprisingly enough she seemed quite happy with the incubator set up. I was expecting some kind of criticism that it was primitive or some such. The way she handled the eggs as she measured and weighed each one meticulously was with something like awe, and I warmed slightly to her despite her cold attitude when I saw the look of love in her eyes for those little speckled eggs.

When she left, just before she got in her big black Ford Lincoln she turned to me and informed me should would be staying in town for the next few months until the chicks fledged and that she would check up daily on progress. She gave me her card with her mobile number and then off she drove.


It was typically early in the morning when the first of the eggs hatched out. I phoned Dr. Sanderson and, after a mumbled torrent of abuse I managed to tell her why I’d called. Twenty minutes later she walked into my hen-house whilst I watched eggs 3 and 4 cracking open. The chicks were not at all pretty, not fluffy cute yellow things like chickens, these were scrawny, pinky-grey things and not even remotely endearing. Dr. Sanderson looked like death lightly warmed over, she had obviously not combed her red hair, and I was mildly amused to see she had shrugged her overcoat on over her pyjamas, which perhaps unsurprisingly had little birds on ‘em.

She opened up her case and pulled out one of the elaborate ‘glove puppet’ bird’s head feeding devices she had shown me a while back. It was made out like an adult bird’s head, with all the markings and stuff, so as the birds don’t imprint on a person apparently. Birds it seems are pretty dim-witted as they seem to be able to mistake a muppet with a woman’s hand up its arse for a real bird. Still she seemed to know her beans okay and was absolutely obsessed with these birds.

She offered one of the gloves to me. "Hold on to this, I’m going to the trunk of my car to fetch our youngsters some dinner." She left me alone and I put on the glove puppet offered. Inside it had a sort of trigger device which opened and closed the bill, feeding the chicks with this was going to be like learning to eat with chopsticks, something I’d never mastered anyway. After a few minutes she came back in lugging a big plastic bucket which looked very heavy. She put it down and prized open the lid. It was full to brimming with maggots, caterpillars, worms and other things I wouldn’t have wanted in the trunk of my car.

Like an old hand she started picking the grubs out of the bucket in the bill of her fake bird glove and shoving them into the eagerly waiting mouths of the chicks. She might not have noticed, but I could see she was shivering. I took off my glove and went inside the house to fetch one of my big winter jumpers. When I brought it back she looked at it as if I was asking her to sleep with me. Then common sense took over, she took off her coat, shrugged my jumper on over her pyjams and then put her coat back on. By then we had seven hungry chicks to feed. We sat up all night feeding them and waiting for the other two eggs to hatch.

They never did.

It was the first set back I’d had and it hurt me more than I could have thought. By daybreak Dr. Sanderson was really tired, dead on her feet almost. I told her to go and get some sleep inside, and to my surprise she did as she was told. Perhaps she trusted me with the chicks, and we had enough grubs in that bucket to last for a good few hours yet.


It was nearly mid-day when Dr. Sanderson emerged from the house, she’d taken the trouble to brush her hair this time and looked a bit more human than the wild woman who had turned up last night.

"Mr Cooley, could you manage to stay on feeding duty another 45 minutes or so?" she asked me.

"Sure thing, Miss, I’m not that tired yet." which was a bit of a lie, but still.

"I’m going to go to the hotel and get my things. I think I’m going to have to move into your place for a few weeks." She obviously didn’t expect objections or any such as she immediately went and got into her car and drove off.

She returned within an hour and took over from me, I was surprised at just how tired I was and slept until early evening, when we swapped around again.

A Few Days Later

The bucket of bugs lasted a few days. Then we had to get some more. We had managed to get the birds used to a ‘night/day’ cycle and whilst they were asleep in the ‘night’ me and Dr. Sanderson, who had finally succumbed to first name terms as Julia, went down to the Creek in the north of my land to see what new dinner we could find for them. Although the weather was finally getting warmer it was still cool out in the fields. Julia didn’t seem to be daunted particularly and waded out into the Creek without second thoughts. Then she started fumbling around under water. I was amazed when she pulled out a catfish, which she immediately returned to the water. After a while I waded in and joined her. Slowly but surely we filled up a second bucket with various creepy-crawlies.

When we had enough we headed back to my farm where we changed and for the first time since she had moved in we sat down to dinner together. After dinner Julia went back out to the chickenshack and took first shift.


The month of feeding the little baby cranes was filled with highs and lows. It was a blow when we lost one of the chicks to some animal in the night, a fox or a coyote we presumed. It was an incredible high when the first of the chicks fledged and lost all the ugly grey fluffy feathers and replaced them with the glorious white ones which I had seen on their dead mother after the tractor accident.

However, as the month passed we began to see an increasing problem. The birds were going to have to learn to fly. They were getting really restless locked in my chickenshack and the chickens were starting to get real jumpy. I was really surprised that Julia hadn’t considered this problem and none of her books seemed to provide a useful answer. It was me in the end who came up with the solution.

So it was one morning late in May that we strapped the glove puppet parents to the back of my dust buggy. Julia let the chicks out of their little stockade and I turned the engine over. Incredibly they followed the buggy, even though it was pretty obviously not what had been feeding them earlier in their lives.

I drove up and down the home field a few times and then started putting on the speed. At first the cranes looked real stupid as they tried to keep up with the buggy on foot. Then there was that moment, what made all the hassle worth it in the end, one of the cranes took flight for the first time, soon I had a little flight of birds flapping madly behind me. Julia later told me that she had seen a sight that would forever remain in her memory of me in my buggy being followed by the chicks silhouetted against the rising sun.


As the year went on the chicks grew into young adults and became stronger and more independent. They started to live outside in the trees by the drainage ditch where I had first found the eggs. As the summer continued me and Julia knew we would soon have to loose them. Whooping Cranes, it seemed, were migratory and ours would have to find themselves in Mexico before the end of August, there they would spend the winter months, heading back north in February to breed and bring up their own chicks in the Spring as we had nurtured them. But how do we get them to Mexico? We had to persuade them to migrate and teach them how to find their way back again. They had already outgrown the buggy, they could catch up with it, so I had bought a powerful motorbike which me and Julia took turns in riding out.

We had become quite a tourist attraction, it seemed, with people often taking photos of us as we sped around the countryside followed by our six cranes. It was strange really, Julia was still living at the farm with me, and I realised that loosing the cranes might mean losing something else altogether.


The solution was really just an extension of what we’d already been doing. But word had spread and now we have News teams coming to watch us, and documentary teams from all over the world. I first flew the micro-light with the birds in July, I took them around familiar territory. But as the month went on I started flying as far south as I could take them. We’d fly most of the day, or until I ran out of fuel, then Julia, who would be following in the car would help me box up the birds and the plane and would drive us back home.

As the month went on it became more and more obvious that the birds’ stamina was increasing, and we finally made the big decision we had both been putting off. On the second Saturday in August we, all eight of us, would set off for Mexico. Only me and Julia would come back.


The day finally arrived. Both me and Julia woke that morning with a feeling of sadness, tinged with a deep felt joy. If we could get these birds to Mexico, then we would have succeeded. But what would we do then? Still the birds came first.

We set off at about mid-day, seemingly being watched by half the World’s press. I took off - appropriately - from 30-Mile Field, and flew twice over the little drainage ditch where all this had begun, partly to let the chicks see where they had come from and partly so they knew where to come back to next year. Then I radioed down to Julia and set off westwards. Down below a small convoy of cars and trucks took off after Julia’s Lincoln.

As the journey progressed fewer of the following cavalcade continued, by the time we passed into (or in the case of me and my cavalcade over) Amarillo, TX only five of Julia’s little team were in tow. When we arrived at the Mexican border, where I landed for a while to give the birds a rest and to refuel, only the BBC and CNN were still with us - and they were going to follow us all the way. The Mexican’s were marvellous I must say, very understanding and gave us permission without a second glance (and without searching our cars or my micro-light).

After an hour or so we were on our way again, heading down to a little lake near Hermosillo where we put down. The Whooping Crane chicks - although I guess they weren’t chicks no more - put down there to. Me, Julia and the BBC and CNN watched them as they finally encountered some other Whooping Cranes. For a while they seemed torn between us and their new found friends. Then the decision was made for them, the Whooping Cranes all took off and after a moment’s hesitation our six took to the wing to follow them. For a while the flock flew over our heads and then they flew off into the sunset. Me and Julia held hands and cried, and then kissed each other, not caring one little bit for the fact that we were being filmed live by the BBC and CNN. Not only the chicks made a decision that day.

We packed away my micro-light with heavy but happy hearts that evening, and set off for Hermosillo where we would spend the night before heading back home - by road - the next day.


I was sittin’ in my kitchen, eatin’ some black bean stew, when Julia Cooley - yep, that’s right - came runnin’ in through the door, all excited and red-faced. I looked up, panicked for a moment, then I saw the joy on her face and I knew for sure what she had to tell me.

A smile from ear to ear crossed the face that when I first met it had been so incapable of smiling, and she brushed back her red hair, now grown long and flowing.

"They’re back!" she said.

A revised and improved version of this story appears in BeWrite Book's "The Miller Moth" published in 2002.

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