Dominant or Submissive? Leader or Follower?
An Interview With Dr. George Gee, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Patuxent Wildlife Research Center: Crane-rearing facility (off-limits to public).


Quiet Zone where chicks are raised: no human sights or sounds allowed.


Dr. George Gee in costume by the swim exercise tank for baby chicks. (His face is uncovered only because there were no chicks present.)


Swim exercise pool for older chicks at Patuxent.

Meet Dr. George Gee
"Cranes are one of the birds that anyone can see and relate to their moods and behaviors," Dr. George Gee told Journey North. "We often give the crane names because they remind us of someone." Dr. Gee is a leading scientist in learning that puppets and costumes could be used in raising captive-bred cranes so they grow up to naturally behave like cranes. Dr. Gee worked for many years at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Many whooping cranes are bred and hatched in captivity there, in hopes of gaining more members of this endangered species. Dr. Gee explains how to tell dominant birds apart from submissive birds.

Body Language Tells A Story
Dominant birds are the ones that stand tall, with the back nearest the neck somewhat elevated and sloping down in the rear. The neck is usually held fairly straight and the birds often assume an alert stance. Dominant birds appear larger than other birds of the same age--not because they are, but because they stand more erect, hold feathers farther from the body, etc. Older dominant birds extend their red crown well down the back of the neck, exposing a large red area.

Submissive birds hold the body nearly horizontal to the ground. The neck is usually bent and the head held lower than other birds in the same area. Submissive birds will usually lower their head and move out of the way when a more dominant bird approaches.

Pecking Order: Leaders and Followers
A group of birds establish a pecking order where the most dominant bird pecks any bird in the group and never receives a peck from others in the group. The most submissive bird never pecks another bird, but receives pecks from all others in the group. Usually, the birds don't go out of their way to attack. Pecks occur most often when a bird lower in the peck order violates the more dominant bird's personal space.

Aggressive responses are more common in the young chick, with the older larger bird picking on the smaller, younger bird. When a group has an established pecking order (by 50 to 100 days of age), it doesn't usually change. Things likely to change the dominance structure include disease, separation from the group for a week or so, and pairing. In fact, a pair that separates from a group may gang up on others in the group. The pair may drive the other birds away or even kill them. In groups of older birds, we have to be especially careful in the spring. We must remove the new pairs when they form.

These behaviors start as soon as the chick hatches and contacts other chicks. We raise chicks in separate pens and use plastic barriers between pens. The plastic allows the birds to see other chicks. It allows them to interact with other chicks and the adult imprint models, yet prevents the chicks from injuring each other.

Try This! Activities and Journal Questions
  • How do you react when someone gets into your personal space? Do your reactions depend on whether you know the person, like the person, or dislike the person? How do you try to protect your boundaries of personal space?
  • Do you have two dogs, or two cats? If you don't, do you know somene who does? Pay attention to them for a half hour. Do they obey some people in their family better than others? Why? Which one seems to be dominant over the other? How can you tell?
  • If you have two gerbils, hamsters, or guinea pigs at home or school, watch them for a half hour. Which seems to be dominant? How can you tell?
  • Has an animal's personality ever reminded you of someone you know? Tell why.
  • Read notes about individual behaviors on the annual "Meet the Flock" charts. Then choose a few cranes to classify as dominant or submissive. Some of the cranes may be difficult to figure out. Do you think these may be in the middle of the pecking order?
  • Learn more about this interesting subject!

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).