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Big Birds

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One year it rained nearly an inch on the day of the vernal equinox, and winter was gone.  This year there was a foot of snow everywhere, and much more along the roads and creeks where strong winds had blown everything else that had fallen since the first of November.  Some of the drifts were as big as houses.  By the vernal equinox winter betrayed no eagerness to exit the stage of its months long performance.

None of this makes any difference to the birds that return each year at this time, regardless of the weather.  Flowers will tolerantly wait beneath the cover of snow, but the birds have no patience at all.  They have important business to which they must attend.  A thick fog envelopes the country this morning, and the barn a hundred yards from the house is only a dim shadow.  The chickadees, redpolls, and siskins chitter softly from their perches in the trees and brush, and I can hear a handful of starlings chirping and whistling in the aspens beyond the creek.  Snow is predicted for later today, but from out of the mist I hear two Sandhill Cranes crying loudly as they make their way home.  The big birds are back.

How big is a big bird?  Like many big birds, sandhills are not as heavy as one might think.  An abundance of feathers makes all birds look larger than they really are.  A male might weigh ten to Sandhill Crane #2twelve pounds, depending on the sub-species, with the females being somewhat lighter.  Still, as far as birds go, Sandhill Cranes are big.  They possess stilts for legs, have large bodies, and a long neck.  At a distance, with their heads down grazing in a field, they can sometimes be mistaken for deer.  Standing upright, they are about four feet tall, and in flight have a wingspan of close to seven feet.

Viewed from a short distance, say six to eight feet, they are enormous, and like most wild creatures, cranes can be prickly when threatened.  Once when I was photographing a female on the nest, she rose to approach me in a menacing way with wings outstretched, and I quickly backed away.  It was hard not to imagine what damage the six inch long bill might inflict if she decided to use it against me.  I didn’t give her the chance.

Twenty years ago Sandhill Cranes were not as abundant in my neighborhood on the northeast end of the Bridger Mountains in Montana.  Though they were not rare, by any means, they were few enough in number that the ranchers between here and the little town of Wilsall sixteen miles away took a certain pride of ownership when a pair of cranes took up residence along a portion of Flathead Creek on their property.  The way some of them talked you would have thought they possessed some special attraction for the birds that was not shared by their less engaging neighbors.  Doubtless, the birds didn’t give a gobble for the people who happened to own the property on which they had decided to nest, but the people were pleased to have them, nonetheless.

Which brings me to the remarkable sound that Sandhill Cranes make.  Somehow and somewhere, someone decided that the call of the sandhill should be described as a  garoo or karoo sound, and forever after field guides have said something like “Common call is a trumpeting, rattling gar-oo-oo, audible for more than a mile.”  Well, that gets one thing right, for sure, because another big thing about Sandhill Cranes is the noise they make.  It is overwhelming.  Many dozens of times I have heard the call of a crane, and begun to look for it within a couple of hundred yards, only to discover it flying over some willows eight hundred yards away.  Whether Sandhill Cranes put extraordinary power into their calls, or whether the voicing simply carries well, I am not certain.  Biologists attribute the extraordinary resonance of the sandhill voicing to the fact that the windpipe forms a loop beneath the breastbone as it does in the Trumpeter Swan.  Whatever the cause, the call of a Sandhill Crane is astonishingly loud, but it doesn’t sound any more like gar-oo-oo to me than cluck sounds like quack.

In fairness to those who write bird books, finding a way to describe bird sounds is a daunting task.  Some are easier than others to describe, and some, like Sandhill Cranes, are nearly impossible.  The folks who write the books have to put something down on a printed page even if it doesn’t exactly do the job, or in the case of the sandhill, come very close.  Gar-oo-oo implies a clarity that is not at all a part of the sandhill vocalization.  Perhaps there is a trumpeting quality about it, but the trumpet has always sounded broken to me.  There is a guttural, garbled element to it that is difficult to portray in print.  I would describe it as being more of a gobble, as if one had crossed a hoarse goose with a dim-witted, slow-talking turkey, but with that you will know little more than the bird books can tell you.  The call of the Sandhill Crane seems to me to be rasping, croaking, grating, and raucous, but that doesn’t tell you much more.  I can’t describe the sound of a Mozart piano sonata either.  You have to hear both Mozart and the Sandhill Crane to understand what either sounds like.  Both sounds are, however, remarkable.

Thirty years ago Sandhill Cranes primarily occupied the lower, well-watered areas of my neighborhood.  They were frequently seen along the creeks that bordered the large hayfields, but for many years now the have been pushing farther into the mountains, nesting wherever there is abundant standing water.  Marshes and beaver ponds have proved attractive to them, and they are commonly seen now in the many canyons that lead from the mountains to the farmland of the valley below.

I am not sure how much territory one nesting pair requires.  One wildlife refuge in Michigan says the Greater Sandhill Crane there requires from twenty to two hundred acres, but I am not certain whether that is so around here or not.  It is my impression that the cranes here do not nest that close together.  Still, it is not uncommon to see a pair of cranes every mile or so along the creek.  The nests are frequently difficult to find since most of them are built in thick brush on boggy ground that does not permit easy access, though on occasion a pair will nest in plain view of a road, and seem unperturbed by the passing traffic.  The crane that gave me such a fright several years ago was sitting on a nest in a clump of cattails not more than two hundred yards from a busy highway.  Two years ago a pair nested on an old beaver lodge a mile below my house, another in an active beaver pond thirty yards behind the house, and still another pair in a marsh a little less than a mile above the house.  That made three pairs in two miles, and it is my feeling that is about as close as they get to one another around here.

Yet over many square miles of land that amounts to a lot of Sandhill Cranes, and such is the case here.  From roughly the first of April to the end of September the cranes are a daily part of life, both by sight and sound.  One hears them first thing each morning, and they are still making a racket as dusk falls.  Sometimes three or four or five will lumber overhead, and sometimes just one.  They spend a good deal of time feeding in the hayfields and along the creeks.  Their omnivorous tastes include everything from seeds and grains to roots and berries to small rodents and reptiles.

Sandhill Cranes are most active and most vocal for the first couple of months of their stay each year.  On occasion one will see them doing their mating dance which includes a good deal of jumping IMG_0161about with outstretched wings, and of course, a lot of noise.  The mating dance is one of natures great displays, and it is always mesmerizing to watch these big birds turn to face one another, point their beaks upward, and hop into the air while flapping their wings and screeching at the top of their lungs.   After thirty seconds or so of such antics they go back to grazing until the spirit (or their hormones) move them once again to bounce up and down, and fill the air with their raucous squawking.

Mostly, however, they are just around, sometimes feeding quietly, sometimes flying about and calling to one another.  It is a rare day in April or early May when one does not see them a dozen or so times a day.  One evening my wife and I were sitting along a beaver pond when three cranes flew over about twenty feet off the ground.  For once they were silent, and in the quiet of the evening not even a wingbeat could be heard as they flew softly out of sight.  Sandhill Cranes are ancient birds whose fossil remains date back to the time of the Eocene some fifty million years ago.  Watching them that evening was like sitting with our ancestors, and seeing them in the dim light of some prehistoric time.

Once the nest has been built, and the eggs—usually two—have been laid, the birds quiet down somewhat.  They still call to one another, especially when one of a mated pair leaves or returns to the nest, but on the whole the mated cranes are less vociferous, not wishing, I suppose, to call undue attention to themselves, or to the nest site.  Unmated and immature birds are about, but even they seem less noticeable by the first of June.

In the meantime, Sandhill Cranes will be seen or heard everywhere I go around here.  Early spring is a clamorous time as dozens of species of birds announce their presence with a variety of chirps, tweets, whoops, and whistles.  The bluebirds make make a soft purring sound, the finches a bubbly warble, and the robins proclaim loudly from long before dawn until darkness falls.  The din at daybreak is often so loud that it is hard to distinguish one bird from another.  In the distance, however, I can always hear the call of a crane, and know that the big birds are there.  Whether they gobble or gar-oo-oo, I cannot tell you.


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