IT WAS JUNE 23, 1982. As he stood nervously in the darkness, just behind a gold curtain, waiting for Johnny Carson to cue his entrance, George Archibald reminded himself that he was there for Tex, the five-foot-tall whooping crane he’d spent the last six years dancing—yes, dancing—with.
The Canadian-born ornithologist, who has dedicated his life to preserving whoopers and other endangered birds, had never expected to be famous, but he’d always known he was going to be a voice for the cranes, so he dried his palms one last time and then stepped into the spotlight. “So tell me about Tex,” the Tonight Show titan said.
Archibald plunged into the tale of the years he’d spent courting a sharp-eyed, stubborn lady whooper from Texas who happened to hold the key to bringing the endangered species back from the brink of extinction. The only problem? Tex firmly believed that she wasn’t a crane at all, but a human.
The ornithologist had been interested in whooping cranes since he was 8 years old, sitting in a one-room schoolhouse in Nova Scotia, listening to a CBC radio program that dramatized the annual 2,600-mile migration of a pair of whoopers from the Texas Gulf Coast to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. The birds had just arrived at their summer home up north, the announcer explained, before piping in the sound of helicopters. “Help! They’ve found us!” the talking whoopers cried. “They’re going to shoot us and put us in a museum collection!” Heart smacking in his chest, Archibald decided he was going to help the whooping cranes.
He was true to his word, growing up to pursue a PhD in ornithology at Cornell University. In 1973 he and a classmate, Ron Sauey, established the organization that would become the International Crane Foundation on Sauey’s family property in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The pair knew that at least five species of Asian cranes were threatened with extinction. The land would suit these birds perfectly. They rented the prop- erty for a pittance and got started.
Then, in 1976, Archibald heard about Tex.
Whooping cranes were once plentiful along the Texas coast, but by the 1930s development and the popularity of the cranes’ long feathers, used to adorn hats, had nearly wiped them out. There were only 16 members left in the very last wild flock, all descendants of a group that had been wintering in Aransas and summering in the Northwest Territories of Canada since the Ice Ages. President Franklin Roosevelt interceded in 1937, creating Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to protect them, but bringing their numbers back was an uphill battle.
Over the following decades, efforts were made to rebuild the wild flock. Scientists also took some birds, includ- ing Tex's parents, into captivity to study them and try to preserve the species that way. When she was born in the San Antonio Zoo in 1967—the same year the U.S. put out its first list of endangered species, which included whooping cranes—Tex represented hope for the future, as she held precious strains of genetic diversity, a crucial thing considering that by then the flock had shrunk in size to the point that the few remaining wild birds were as closely related as the Hapsburgs.
The moment Tex reached maturity, ornithologists started introducing her to attractive potential mates, but she just wasn’t interested. Tex had spent the first formative weeks of her life with people, not whoopers, and had zero interest in her fellow cranes. She would come alive, performing her part of the whooper mating dance, whenever people were nearby. By 1975 breeders had only managed to get her to lay a single egg, which never hatched.
Pondering how Tex responded to people, Archibald had an idea. “She had key genetic material that we needed to help this flock get back on its feet,” he says today, reached over the phone in Wisconsin. “She only wanted to dance with humans, so I thought, ‘Well, then let’s dance with her.’” He had her sent out to his foundation in Baraboo just before the spring of 1976, and when she arrived he set up a desk and a cot alongside her enclosure. “It was very easy, because nobody had ever paid attention to her before, since they were trying to get her to connect with one of the cranes. When I paid attention, she finally had her human,” Archibald recalls.
He spent his days working alongside her. Soon Tex had a signal—she would lift her beak, exposing her long, white feathered throat, and emit a soft, thrumming, purring sound. That meant it was time to dance. Archibald would flap his hands, crouch down, and take great leaping steps, all in the hope of connecting with Tex and triggering her ovulation. In his mind, in those moments, he was a bird. While the pair hopped about and flapped wings, a technician would sidle up, ready to inseminate Tex. “I was there from sunup to dusk every day from March to May. It was great fun and good exercise,” he says. “I enjoyed her company. Her life was very simple, maybe a little boring for some, but I never got bored.”
Still, the next few mating seasons came and went without Tex becoming a mother. She could pick Archibald out of a crowd. He tested it once by standing in a field surrounded by a clump of students; the crane zipped past them all, finding him within seconds. Even after he’d been away for months working in other parts of the world, she refused to dance with anyone else, but would flap her wings and hop a little to greet Archibald whenever he returned.
Soon it was the 1980s. Archibald went from being a bachelor to a family man, started cutting his shaggy mane, and adopted a more professorial style, but he continued to take up his post each spring alongside Tex’s pen. Then, in June 1982, after six years, it finally happened: Tex laid an egg. The hatchling, Gee Whiz, pecked his way out of his avocado-size brown-speckled shell, and lived.
The story made national headlines, and a local TV station’s footage of Archibald’s annual dancing with Tex aired around the country. When one of Carson’s producers, Shirley Wood, rang up and asked Archibald to fly to Los Angeles to appear on the show, he thought of all the millions of people who would surely be watching, and shuddered. But then he thought of the exposure, and the good Tex’s story had already done by rousing interest in whooping cranes, and said yes.
Before flying to LA, he said goodbye to Tex, who came out and danced a little in her pen. Unbeknownst to Archibald, it would be the last time he saw her. That night, the eve of his Carson appearance, there was an incident at the ICF refuge.
A pack of raccoons broke into some of the bird pens. The hatchling, Gee Whiz, was fine, but Tex was killed. After some debate Archibald’s colleagues called and told him what had happened. Archibald, already nervous, had been reading his Bible when the phone rang. As he absorbed the news, his eyes fell on a passage that stated “streams of living water would flow” from anyone who had faith. Hanging up the phone, he scribbled the verse on a scrap of paper and stuck it in his shoe.
That afternoon Archibald arrived at the studio lot, where he sat in the makeup room with Carson and his sidekick Ed McMahon, listening to them crack jokes. Archibald tried to laugh along with them, but his mind was skittering from thought to thought. He’d already been a little worried about how this story would play out. “It’s an odd story, and Carson was a comedian. I was worried he’d use it to make a fool out of me, that he’d turn it into a joke,” Archibald says now. “I prayed about it a lot.”
As he slid into his chair, Archibald glanced out into the blaring studio lights, sensing the audience in the black void beyond. His mind began to go blank when he spotted Wood, the producer who’d booked him for the show, crawling on her hands and knees below the banks of cameras and equipment until she was sitting, lotus-style, right in his line of sight. “I trusted Shirley Wood, for some reason. Whenever I got nervous—there were only three channels back then, and I knew millions of people were watching me—I’d look over at her,” he says.
The segment started out light, with Carson setting up the conversation about the ornithologist’s years spent dancing with Tex. Archibald described his special relationship with the crane. Then he revealed her fate. The audience gasped.
“It was a powerful moment, a powerful metaphor. I think Tex reached more people with her death than she did with her dance,” Archibald says. “More than 22 million people were watching, and I think a lot of them felt that loss. I was sad we’d lost her, but peace came over me. She’d done her work, she’d left us Gee Whiz, and her story still touches people.”
In the more than 30 years that have passed, Archibald never has watched the entire interview—“I don’t like seeing myself on TV,” he explains—but he’s made peace with the fact that journalists are always going to ask about it. He believes his brief appearance on Carson is one reason he’s often invited to events like the 24th Annual Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, where he’ll be a featured speaker this month.
Since his Tonight Show appearance, Archibald has continued his work to protect cranes. Gee Whiz, Tex’s son, is now 37 years old, and has fathered more than 100 whoopers, including a female that became the first of Tex’s descendants to breed in the wild. The Texas flock has seen its numbers swell to more than 500 birds. Experimental flocks have been established in Wisconsin and Florida, and there are more than 100 whoopers living in captivity.
Every inch of progress in bringing back the species has been hard-won, and Archibald is never unaware that it could all be wiped out. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says. “The Texas flock is the only one that is viable, but one oil spill could destroy it. That’s part of why I keep telling Tex’s story. I am the voice for these birds. I believe that’s my purpose in life.”
Archibald is a featured speaker at the 24th Annual Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, which runs Feb. 20–23. $25 admission. whoopingcranefestival.org