Monday, March 22, 2010

A Sandhill Crane Wake Up Call

I'm sitting in my living room right now with the sliding glass door open listening to the morning cacophony of bird voices. Every Northern Mockingbird in the neighborhood is trying to out-mock every other Northern Mockingbird. Male Northern Cardinals are trying to out-red all the other Cardinals in the area. Red-winged Blackbirds are singing "kon-ka-ree" from my wetland. A male Mourning Dove is cooing and the resident Carolina Wren is doing it's best rendition of "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger" when the bird books say their voice is "Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle."

However, the best voice out there is a pair of Sandhill Cranes that has decided to spend some time this spring displaying and calling from my wetland. To me only the voice of the Greater Prairie-Chicken is more haunting and "wild" than is the voice of the Sandhill Crane. I'm listening to them bugle now and the sound brings back so many memories of all those years on the Platte River in Nebraska listening and watching as "my" birds took possession of their primordial staging grounds each March.

As I listened to the Cranes, my thoughts went also to an essay titled Marshland Elegy from Aldo Leopold's classic book "A Sand County Almanac." Marshland Elegy tells the story of the triumphant return of Sandhill Cranes to central Wisconsin back in the days when crane numbers were declining because people had no respect for the land or the wetlands on it. You can listen to a story from National Public Radio about Marshland Elegy at this link. You can hear the haunting call of Sandhill Cranes in the background as the story is narrated.

I first read A Sand County Almanac when I was a junior in high school and I distinctly remember how much the Marshland Elegy essay had an impact. Back in those late 1960's days in Wisconsin the Sandhill Crane was decidedly rare in the state. About the only place you could find one in my part of the state was at the Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg in Burnett County. I had never seen a Sandhill Crane but I had heard that the best place to find one was at "Crex." In early April 1968, not long after finally getting my drivers license (I failed the test three times!) I drove over to Crex Meadows one Saturday morning hoping to see a Sandhill Crane.

To this day I still remember standing on one of the dikes that ring the wetlands at Crex and hearing, far off to the south, the haunting call of a Crane. I had never heard the voice or any recording of it but when the sounds hit my ear drum I knew it was Sandhill Cranes. It was a blistering clear day, just like it is here today, and I heard the bugle far to the south. I watched the sky and eventually I saw two small dots that were far away from me. The bugling came from them. As they approached from god knows how high in the sky their bodies grew larger and their voices grew louder until I could make out the form of their bodies and see their wings set for a final approach to the wetland. They called to each other the entire time. Unlike most humans, Sandhill Cranes stay mated to the same mate throughout their lives. It was apparent that this pair had been together for a very long time.

On landing they began to display to each other and do the ritual dance that is so familiar among Sandhill Cranes. It was almost like what you see these two Florida Sandhill Cranes doing in this Youtube video.

I will never forget that sight and those sounds as I watched what was probably the first arrival of Cranes at Crex Meadows that spring. I still get all goose-pimply thinking about it 42 years later.

Later in life I had the privilege of working on the Platte River in Nebraska, ground zero for 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Crane population - they are there right now in fact. From 1979 to 1982 and 1987 through 1992, I was able to spend almost every waking moment in March each year on the Platte River watching the annual ebb and flow of nature through the eyes of Sandhill Cranes.

I thought about the Platte River this morning as I listened to my pair of Sandhill Cranes call. And I also thought about those first two birds I ever saw at Crex Meadows 42 long yeas ago. And as I thought about them I realized that one of the best things that ever happened to me was getting to know Sandhill Cranes. I only hope they are in the cosmos after I depart the earth so I can still listen, through eternity, to that haunting voice every March.


  1. There's not much I miss about Nebraska or Florida, but sandhill cranes is definitely one of them. I saw and heard my first sandhills in a wetland somewhere around Stevens Point during my freshman year at UW-SP. Ever since then, they have remained one of my favorite bird species. And while I know that my parents probably shouldn't have fed the cranes when they lived in Florida, it was still SO COOL when a pair would saunter up to the back windows in the house and "bugle" for their pail of cracked corn and even cooler when they would bring their chicks over for breakfast!!

    We have some signs of spring here in Maine, given a very unusual 2 weeks of balmy weather. But the birds and frogs could be mighty sorry if "winter" returns as it usually does in late March and early April.