Sandhill Cranes

The symbol of winter on the Llano Estacado

Published Jan 2nd 2000 in Wildlife, Birds, Sandhill Cranes

On Christmas Counts sponsored by the National Audobon Society, I go to the field before daybreak. Three of the regional Counts feature Sandhill Cranes every year. I go to their night roosts in the bigger salt playas and wait for daybreak. Long winter nights test the cranes as they stand in chilled water to their knees, a protection from coyotes. Nervous lonely supplications for the night to end can be heard as I find a watching post hidden from their alert sentinel eyes. I settle in, bundled up and warm.

Sometimes fog rises thick from the water. The emptiness of the plains is magnified by fog. I am almost adrift, as if walking in space, tethered only by memory. The cranes talk querulously as daybreak oozes through the grayness. 

On one such foggy morning in the past snow began materializing as if from the heart of the cloud. The fog cleared, sifted from the sky by the snow, but visibility hardly increased. My outpost became blanketed by what my mind imagined were the soft down feathers of cranes as they fell silent for three or four minutes. Then I heard a determined splashing, a squawk, and a clamor as 10,000 cranes struggled to seek airborne safety from the Trickster personified—a coyote with long antelope legs, soundlessly penetrating the cranes' watery defenses until its final successful lunge. 

I heard the coyote splashing to shore as cranes rose into the snow’s silence. After long moments of stillness I rose and meandered along the shore of the playa, where I found silver-gray feathers spotted by still liquid blood, its redness the only brightness of the day. The snow lost its softness, became tiny cylindrical pellets, and wind began to cut through my winter clothing, glazing my cheeks with cold.

I have a garden of drought-adapted plants, both exotic and native. In the winter, I prune to shape the direction of growth and to influence the character of the developing habitat. My work is often interrupted by the bugling clarion of cranes circling high, drawing me away to search the limitless sky. If I am lucky the cranes are low enough to be seen. Frequently though, their voices are the only evidence of their presence, resounding like angels, purity without corporeality.

Their trumpeting speaks of the centuries. Archaic Indians, the Folsom culture, the mammoths and dire wolves of the Pleistocene all heard the cranes. In migration, cranes fly as high as 13,000 feet and travel at night. Winter foragers soar purely for pleasure on clear warm afternoons—there is no other explanation. Hearing them, the call of wanderlust infiltrates my being: the cranes nest as far north as Canadian potholes and Arctic tundra. If I could only join their flight...if I only could! The resting places of migrating cranes are far apart, like the human outposts of my homeland.

Kurooo, kurooo, kurooo. Cranes demonstrate an intelligent curiosity. When I am engaged in activities ouside of the work-day norm (chasing Longspurs and Horned Larks in Alkali Sacaton grass, for example), cranes will circle and fly low. The cranes’ analytical watchfulness draws upon extensive memory. Their vision is as far-reaching as their voices, encompassing two miles or more.

Long strings of cranes returning at sunset to roost sites in playa lakes come in rhythmic waves, continuing until the final escape of the winter sun’s gentle warmth and light. It seems that each crane calls in turn, their music undulating the length of the curved flightline, a chant as holy and sonorous as those of medieval monks. Winter cranes travel miles to glean grain from the fields, sometimes alighting in pastures to predatorily herd mice and rats from tussocks of bunchgrass. Their aerial momentum is regal: unlabored, dignified, a stately 30 miles per hour. On the ground, their walk is graceful and unhurried.

A Sandhill Crane’s blue-gray color fades into the gray-gold of the prairie. At times I have been a half mile from a hundred cranes feeding on the ground, unaware of their presence until one brags of catching a juicy cotton rat, or of finding a tasty root or plump grubworm pupae. In twilight they become invisible as they melt into shallow water. At midday the blue sky swallows a flight. Cranes have the power of the anti-mirage—to remain invisible within visual range.

Sandhill Cranes play. A well-fed flock soars for an afternoon’s entertainment, twisting, banking, diving, and sideslipping. At such times their antics appear to be a contest: one or two perform a maneuver, then others follow suit. The lead birds are constantly overtaken by other cranes, the lead exchanged over and over. Once I have followed a lone crane who never flew but kept ahead of me, occasionally stopping as if to say “Hurry up! What is keeping you?” I watched one tossing a Kleenex up in the air, chasing it as the breeze caught it, catching it again, and bowing as if proud of its prowess.

The mating dance of cranes is famous -- leaping gyrations and mirthful gravity-defying bounces. At times they bound over each other. Rehearsal often occurs on the wintering grounds. Do they share new steps? New rhythms? Do they have dance contests? The dance is accompanied by the din of other cranes, which can stop without reason can, and then resuming like the chatter of a human gathering.

Like the sounds of Sandhill Cranes, the song of the Cassin’s Sparrow is one of the two most archetypal melodies of the Llano Estacado. Both stir powerful emotion in this native-born plainsman. Two dominant emotional reactions to the prairie are personified: the sparrow’s subtle familiarity which invites one to examine life more closely, and the crane’s far-seeing, far-traveling perspective. The contrast of these diametrically opposed viewpoints creates a single unified paradigm.

Unlike the haunting call of the crane, the Cassin’s Sparrow sings a different song of the Llano. In the soft light of first dawn, as nighttime chill clutches most strongly, an ascending quavering song urges the sun upwards. The bird performs a songflight, rising with the melody. Then a descending trill arcs, as does the bird. The melody is the quiet breath of the earth at rest, its rhythm that of the calm deep breathing of a meditator sitting cross-legged.

Cassin’s Sparrows are secretive. The parents never fly directly to the nest, preferring to run to it through the grass when the observer blinks or is distracted.

From human height the prairie is almost two-dimensional. The Cassin’s Sparrow shows that it has vast depths, partly unexplored by science. Wind may toss grass stalks like waves upon an ocean, but between soil and seed lies a secret world which human feet blunder through unseeing.

The behavior and songs of Cassin's Sparrows give color to the landscape. They are creatures of the grass, children of the ubiquitous wind. By necessity they are ground-dwellers; the wind buffets their flight, capsizing their equilibrium. To the leeward! To the leeward! Wind and danger keeps them behind the simplest of screening vegetation, camouflaged and protected.

When I see the first flight song of the Cassin's Sparrow, I watch. When I hear Sandhill Cranes overhead, I listen. The birds are claiming their homeland. With their songs, I claim mine.