Learning More about the Sandhill Cranes

Last evening I attended my first ever online class. It was put on by the Aldo Leopold Foundation and called “Virtual Crane Viewing.” In fact, there wasn’t a lot of crane viewing, but there was a lecture given by an interesting and enthusiastic professor about my age. I loved it. I learned many new things and had some of my theories based on my relentless (ha ha) crane observation validated. 

Among the things I learned was that one of the things that led to cranes almost going extinct was the way farmers “shocked” their crops in the old days. From the air these shocked crops looked like birds on a field, so the cranes flew over the harvested corn that could have fed them.

Shocked Corn

Other problems — you might imagine — including people hunting them. Apparently the meat is very tasty. The professor put up a photo of a general store in Wisconsin (where the Aldo Leopold Center is) and cranes hung from the ceiling and were lined up on the counter. He was having a sale. 

The lecture talked about what kind of environment cranes prefer (flat and wet) and that helped me understand why trees have been planted along the “highway” that runs past the refuge, simply to discourage the cranes from ranging where they could get hurt. I learned about their migratory patterns and how they have spread out their territory since their numbers have recovered. It made me very happy. 

I learned, also, that the legislation to protect migratory birds happened early in the 20th century. As he spoke I remembered an exhibit in the Denver Natural History Museum. It was about the Passenger Pigeon. I remember asking my dad, “What’s ‘ex-tinct’.” I was only in my second year of reading so I could sound stuff out but not know what I’d read. My dad explained it to me and told me about the Dodo. I don’t remember what I thought about it, but something about the moment lingered in my memory.

As for Aldo Leopold himself? I don’t know much about him, but I will probably learn more. A friend gave me one of his books years ago, and I couldn’t get into it. During the presentation, one of his descendants read a passage, and I could hear why I might not have gotten into his books. It was extremely poetic — rhapsodic — and compared the calls of the cranes to human orchestral instruments. It made my teeth itch. I kept thinking, “Let the cranes have their unique and definitely NOT human sounds.” And even when I understood that a main part of Leopold’s writing (and the “class”) was introducing the cranes to people so that the cranes would be appreciated, I didn’t like it. Just me. Just personal taste. 

I have a funny perspective on nature. IF nature appears poetic and rhapsodic and all that, it’s not nature’s fault, not nature’s “nature,” so to speak. At the same time, I don’t think we can help seeing, experiencing, nature (as long as it’s not killing us ha ha) in poetic terms if we love it. It’s that so much of our world is “spin” and embellishment and illusion. Nature doesn’t “spin” anything. It has no need of embellishment and in and of itself is no illusion .We might put a pretty illusion on it or a nightmarish one, but nature just does nature and fuck all. That very integrity is its vulnerability. 

I don’t even like to think of nature as something outside of myself. I wish I could escape that perspective, but I can’t. I consciously go out “into nature” as often as possible. I wish there were another way to express that because this warm house is nature, too. It’s what humans have devised through human nature. It’s not really different from cranes preferring flat, wet landscapes with a food source nearby.

One of the points the lecture brought home is one I think about a lot when I’m “with” the cranes and that is their longevity as a species. The lecturer talked about the absolute predictability of a crane’s day, how breeding pairs go off by themselves, how when a “colt” is large enough to fly the couple — family — rejoins the flock and there is much (apparent) celebration. I learned how the cranes use the thermals (as I suspected) to lift themselves VERY high (like airplanes!) to catch a tailwind so when they are going long distances they don’t have to work very hard. 

And so…survival. While I resist looking at nature through my own tendency to form poetic metaphors, I think it IS a metaphor and guidance for us, though it isn’t really a metaphor. We’re just so VERBAL and abstract that it seems to be. And that is that survival is the whole point of the choices the cranes have made for millions of years and they are good at it. They live for decades. They have small families. When they need to go off by themselves, they go. When it’s important for their survival to gather in large groups, they gather. I can’t imagine a Sandhill Crane refusing to wear a mask because, you know, “freedom.” Nature’s lessons — in all their seeming rustic simplicity — are eminently practical and wise. 

Early November, 2020, Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge

Eagles above… Late November, 2020. When I arrived at the Refuge all of this was going on.


17 thoughts on “Learning More about the Sandhill Cranes

  1. I am curious–with this being your first online class…do you think you could have taught your students this way?

    • I did! I taught online and half/half classes for more than a decade. I liked it. Some of my lectures are still on Youtube and people actually watch them! One difference now is the ability to ask questions of the prof in real time. I didn’t have that kind of technology to work with.

  2. I loved this post and although a serious reflection on nature and poetry and survival, I found my self chuckling. You really got me with the itchy teeth….

    • I heard about how the cranes have arrived in Indiana. If you are interested and have the time, you might want to see if there’s another one, especially since you live in the midwest.

    • I think so, but I think sometimes some people confuse their emotions for what’s really happening in front of them, like birds mate for life, but it’s not romance, it’s a known nest and a known partner. I don’t know if that makes sense. That doesn’t diminish it for me at all; it’s kind of guidance in finding a life partner (at which I failed 😀 )

  3. Love this! Wildlife makes me smile. This bit of history and information on Sandhill Cranes was a delight to read. I come across these birds a lot, not when out walking but when delving into some Cryptozoology, It seems the humble crane maybe the MothMan among other bizarre creatures. A great post, Martha.

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