Walnut, a 42-year-old white-naped crane at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s campus in Front Royal, died of renal failure, the zoo said.
Walnut lived well past the 15-year typical life expectancy for a white-naped crane in human care. She died naturally January 2 with animal caretakers by her side, the zoo said.
Hatched in 1981 and raised by people, Walnut, the offspring of two wild-caught cranes brought to the U.S. illegally, developed a social bond with her keepers.
Because her genes were not represented in the U.S., she became the most genetically valuable crane in the Northern American population at the time, the zoo said. But her time with people gave her no interest in breeding. She even attacked possible mates.
Walnut came to Front Royal in September 2004. The facility regularly breeds cranes with behavioral or physical limitations by using techniques that include artificial insemination.
In Walnut’s case, bird keeper Chris Crowe gained her trust by mimicking how male cranes interact with their mates during breeding season. He flapped his arms like a crane would in a unison mating dance, offered her nesting materials, and brought her food. Their mating ritual made a Walnut a bit of an internet sensation on TikTok in October 2021 as she became smitten with her human mate.
The trust Crowe built up with Walnut allowed him to take sperm from a male crane and artificially inseminate Walnut without anyone restraining her.
“Walnut was a unique individual with a vivacious personality,” Crowe said. “She was always confident in expressing herself, an eager and excellent dancer, and stoic in the face of life’s challenges. I’ll always be grateful for her bond with me. 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.”
White-naped cranes are considered vulnerable. Fewer than 5,300 exist in their native habitats in Mongolia, Siberia, Korea, Japan, and China.
Walnut had eight offspring between 2005 and 2020. Keepers gave her eggs to other white-naped crane pairs to raise, in order to increase their chances for survival.
Two cranes related to Walnut live at the Front Royal facility — Brenda, her first chick, is now 18; and Brenda’s 1-year-old, not-yet-named female chick. Others from Walnut have successfully bred naturally and cared for offspring with their mates, the zoo said.
Feature image of Walnut with Chris Crowe in 2021 by Roshan Patel/Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
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