Friday, December 2, 2011

"My" Sandhill Cranes

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.... Aldo Leopold

If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certaintly, that most people with an ecological consciousness and an ecological heart remember the day they saw their first Sandhill Crane. It may have been along a channel of the Platte River in Nebraska or maybe on a National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, or maybe along side the road to Disney World in Orlando. However no matter where it was, if you were aware of what you were seeing it was an experience that will likely follow you to your grave.

For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had just recently earned my driver's license (after failing the parallel parking test three times) and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about 2 hours from home - far enough to be "away" but close enough to get home to if it turned out to be too far away.

My main reason for traveling to Crex Meadows that day was to see an Osprey, a species of bird that is all too famililar to Floridians today but forty some years ago was almost extinct. Its population was declining at a rapid pace because of chemicals placed in the environment. One of them, DDT, took a special interest in causing the shells of Osprey eggs to thin if there was too much chemical and thin shells meant that adults crushed the eggs and that meant no baby Ospreys. It was a viscous cycle for the Osprey.

For some reason, however, Ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows and something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough I might actually see one of those fishing eating hawks.

I left home early on a Saturday mroning after having milked cows and fed my sheep and taken care of other farm responsibilities. I pointed my old Ford Falcon west on Highway 48 and took off for Crex.

Not long after arriving there I found a large flowage (flowage is a Wisconsin word for reservoir) and in that flowage was a group of dead trees and in one of those dead trees was a pair of Ospreys repairing winter's damage to last year's nest. Despite my anticipation it took me only a few minutes to see an Osprey and begin learning about them - how they flew, how they sang, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble. In other words I started to learn about what makes an Osprey and Osprey.

About mid morning as I stood on the dike along the edge of the flowage I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had ever heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows. Earlier experience told me that it wasn't a Canada Goose, and it wasn't wimpy enough to be an Eagle, and by now I'd heard enough Osprey's to know it wasn't that species. But what was it?

I searched the southern sky and finally, off in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set, there was no motion, they were losing altitude all like a plane would do. Yet they continued to call this primordial call from as high in the sky as I could detect them. I could tell nothing else about them.

All I knew was that they were a long way away from me and were they ever noisy.

Norman Stone was the first manager of the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. He had been there since the 1940s and probably knew every tree and every grass on his domain by its first and last name. Norm came along in an old beat up pick up truck patrolling the area and probably keeping an eye on the Ospreys when he stopped to ask this 16 year old kid what he was seeing on the marsh. I told him about the Ospreys and what I had seen but more importantly I said I was perplexed by this noise in the sky from what I thought was birds but were too far away to really tell.

"Ah," Norm said, "You get to welcome back the first Sandhill Cranes of the year to Crex Meadows. They should have been here a couple days ago. I guess they just took their time getting up here from Florida." Not knowing a thing about Sandhill Cranes I asked Norm for more information and like a gushing river he filled me with his knowledge of where they come from what they do, how they live how they die and what makes a crane a crane and not some other species. Stone also told me that Sandhill Cranes were a living reminder of primordial America. They were on the landscape long before the American bison showed up and with luck they would be on the landscape many years after humans take leave of the planet.

Stone also told me about a story in a book by a guy named Aldo Leopold that I needed to read. The story was called "A Marshland Elegy" and it was an essay in a book called "A Sand County Almanac." Norm told me "If you want to understand how things were and why they are today like they are today you need to read that book. And when you do you'll know a lot more about Sandhill Cranes in the process."

I stood on that dike for maybe 15 more minutes and listened to Norm tell me about cranes as we watched these birds, that now looked like B-52 bombers, make their final approach to the meadows, where they ultimately heralded their arrival with a triumphant bugle once they stood on the ground. It was a sound that never left me.

In 1979 I had the opportunity to help on a research project designed to figure out how to keep water in the Platte River for Sandhill Cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than 80 percent of the world's Sandhill Cranes descended on the Platte River each spring where they prepared themselves for the rest of their migration to northern Canada, western Alaska and to eastern Siberia. For Sandhill Cranes the Platte River was the weakest link in their life history. At the same time more than 80 percent of the water in the river had been removed upstream to irrigate corn. Without the river there might likely be no cranes.

I vividly remember a conversation one March morning in 1979 with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I wa a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He waved me down, gave me a thorough chewing out because of who employed me and then informed me in no uncertain terms that I should carry a side arm for protection "becaause of who you work for and you're trying to save those god damned cranes."

I owned a .375 magnum pistol at the time and it promptly went under the front seat of my car no matter where I drove.

Luckily with the passage of time and the education efforts of a bunch of fifth grade students (who are now all in their 30s) the attitudes about cranes on the Platte River have changed dramatically. Where once farmers were threatening my life because I was protecting a bird, now farmers refer to them as "our cranes." Where once the Omaha World-Herald newspaper wrote editorials bemoaning how water flowing down the Platte River that hadn't irrigated corn was "wasted" water, that same newspaper now writes editorials about the need to protect an obscure flower from going extinct.

Throughout my career as a wildlife biologist I was able to study sandhill cranes in Alaska, central Canada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming. I once got to spend 8 days with them in Cuba and still remember the blistering cold morning on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea watching a flock of Sandhill cranes fly over me and land in Russia just a few miles away.

Living in Florida we are lucky to have so many Sandhill Cranes in so many places. For me I often don't need an alarm clock in the morning. I am regularly blased out of bed by the dueting call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory and each morning the male of the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is his hood and the rest of you interlopers better keep on keeping on.

The pair of Florida Sandhill Cranes shown in the picture above are, for want of a better word, "My" Sandhill Cranes. They forage along Honore Avenue most days, fly over my house at least twice a day calling out to all of cranedom that they are there, and they occasionally show their yearly colt (what baby Sandhill Cranes are called) when they figure things are safe enough to expose the colt to the rigors of the unnatural natural world in which they live.

Of all the species of birds I have seen world wide I feel no greater kinship with or love for Sandhill Cranes. I try to stop and watch and listen to them every chance I get. And each time I do I still have a synapse in the back of my head that fires reminding me of that day long ago when I first heard them herald their triumphant arrival on a primordial marsh in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.

Although I wont be around for many more years I am happy knowing that even though I wont be here some kid some where might get the same rush I got when he first heard a Sandhill Crane and maybe that rush will help him or her develop a love for nature and the natural world like my Sandhill Cranes did for me.


  1. I spent many Sunday afternoons exploring Crex Meadows although I didn't examine it with the same scientific eye that you did. That's where I saw my first Sandhill Crane, too.

    Every year our local paper (The Wichita Eagle) runs a news article about the arrival of the first Sandhills at a preserve north of us. It's kind of a 'big deal' when the Sandhills arrive. Then all my friends keep me posted and amused about how many Coy the Sandhills pilfer out of their backyard ponds.

  2. I currently work at Crex Meadows and stumbled on your blog. Would you mind if I used your story about meeting Norm Stone in an upcoming presentation about him? Did you have any other contact with him? Could you call us at Crex with any more details or information? Thank you! 715-463-2739