If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certainty, that most people with an ecological consciousness remember the day they saw their first sandhill crane. For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had recently earned my driver's license and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about two 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 then 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. Thin eggs meant that adults crushed the eggs when incubating and that meant no baby ospreys. For some reason, however, ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows. Something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough, I might see one of those fishing eating hawks.
Not long after arriving I found a large reservoir where a group of dead trees occupied the center. 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 fed, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble. About mid-morning I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows. I searched the southern sky and in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set and there was no motion. They were losing altitude like a plane would do. 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.
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 pickup truck as he patrolled the area. When he stopped to ask this sixteen year old kid what I had seen on the marsh I told him about the ospreys. 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. 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 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." As I stood on the road by the reservoir and listened to Norm tell me about cranes, the birds I had heard now looked like gigantic bombers making their final approach to the meadows. 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 was conducting research designed to figure out how to keep water in the Nebraska’s Platte River for sandhill cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than eighty 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. I vividly remember a conversation one March morning with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I was 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 "because you're trying to save those god damned cranes." I owned a .357 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 education efforts 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 those same farmers referred 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 spent ten 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 blasted out of bed by the duetting call of a pair of sandhill cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory. Each morning the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is theirs and any interlopers better keep on keeping on.
Of all the nearly 6,000 species of birds I have seen worldwide I feel no greater kinship with or love for any species except sandhill cranes and with that kinship a love of all species of cranes has blossomed. I 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 reminds 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.
Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska's Platte River - the ONLY place to watch Sandhill's
Wattled Cranes in South Africa
Gray-crowned Crane - WOW!