Dispatch from the Countryside: The Arresting Presence of Sandhill Cranes

Minneapolis Star Tribune

October 20, 2015 - By Karin Winegar

You could not miss them.

The sandhill cranes made a nest on the small island in the shallow lake in my horse pasture. We could not see the female, but we knew she was tucked down in the clutter of cattails and reeds, her big grey plumed body blending in perfectly. The male stood fiercely still near the nest, his red rimmed eye reproachful as we trotted to a stop on the opposite shore.

All summer my friend Laurie and I watched them and their two fluffy chicks with legs like elongated chopsticks. The chicks became slim juveniles foraging closely with their parents in the pastures and corn fields, then stately young adults picking gravel at the roadside.

"The cranes are on the apple tree hill!" I reported after my horse spooked, whirled and dislodged me at the sight of the big birds. "The cranes are in the beaver house inlet," I reported.
And later that month "the cranes are all out together in the soybean field."

The first time I encountered sandhill cranes many years ago, it was because of an eerie sound far above me as I rode on a gravel road in a Washington County. The cry was not swans, not geese, not like anything I’d ever heard.

"My god they sound like pterodactyls!" I thought. A pair floated far, far up in the sky, almost invisibly high and would never have been seen except for that far reaching purring croak.

Their complaining croaks echoed all this summer long on the little lake, particularly at twilight.

The lake has sheltered swans, coots, mallards and a pair of loons. Great horned owls roost in the oaks on the edges, wood ducks shoot upward from among the lily pads, crying and rippling the surface. A rare bewildered quail or two as been seen there, and in past decades, although not recently, the long grasses exploded with pheasant roosters. Lately, it’s been dominated by wild turkeys that perch in trees and crash noisily out of the branches when we ride beneath them. The hens scoot across the grasses, the turkey cocks stalk alone, their beards swaying like Scottish sporrans, the females with a passel of youngsters crouched and sprinting with them.

You could never miss the cranes.

At summer’s end, the parents stood 4 feet tall with 6 foot wingspreads and the chicks barely less. They grazed in the ditch at the edge of the cornfields now, four stately, eye catching grey presences. Their ancestors were not much different nine million years ago when they wintered in what is now Nebraska on the Platte River. It was time to catch the thermals to that route again, and I wished them a safe journey with their kind.

You could not miss the crane family.

As you drove north on the straight country blacktop, they stood out at least a quarter of a mile away. I can spot the snapping and painted turtles and salamanders crossing that road from hundreds of yards away. I straddle the caterpillars, and more than once I leaped out of my car to scoop up a turtle or salamander and turned to see my car rolling away down the empty road. You could not miss the huge birds as you came east to that curve, past the trim white farmhouse and the little depression in the cornfield where the cranes had waded earlier this rainy summer.

Someone chose not to miss them last week.

"They were still warm, so big when I held them in my arms," said Laurie, who found them minutes later. "Everything about them is beautiful, their feet, their long necks."

In killing both crane parents the driver probably killed the young ones as well, because the young had never flown the 500 miles to the Platte. How would they find their way? When would they know to depart? Where would they find rest enroute?

Dr. Jane Gooddall has written about the sandhill cranes, "Though they face an increasing number of threats from human activities, their age-old migration continues to be a most amazing phenomenon. To ensure that sandhill cranes continue to thrive, we must work harder than ever to preserve the Platte River…."

It’s not the Platte alone on which those cranes depend. It is on the kindness of drivers here in Minnesota as well. Someone saw them. Someone did not miss them.

Karin Winegar