The first thing you should know about cranes is that they don’t like to be ignored. They will let you know where they are, and roughly how many of them there are, by how deafeningly loud their calls are. That is, if you can talk to the person next to you, there may only be a few cranes in the field nearby. But as communicating with the people around you becomes more difficult and you begin shouting, then there are probably a good number of cranes, say one hundred or so. And, if you happen to forget they are there, or you turn your attention to anything other than the cranes, a few will most certainly leave their field temporarily, fly over head, waiting till they are just above you, and call out once more so that your ears receive a generous trilling blast of the crane’s symphonic brass—reminiscent, somewhat, of a seventh-grade band concert, but if there were only trumpets.
It was 8 o’clock in the morning and my numb fingers wrapped around my binoculars like frost build-up collecting on a forgotten chicken breast in the back of the freezer. It was mid October and it felt like summer had taken a hard left turn, missed the exit for autumn, and went straight down the highway toward winter with no exit ramps in sight. Typical bird watchers may be dedicated to savoring the hour before sunrise when birds first begin to stir out of their nightly roosts—I, however, am not always like the typical bird watcher. I would not call that morning savory; I instead I would call it cold.
My team of fellow ecology students and I were conducting a field experiment to study how bird diversity might be correlated to land use in southeast Michigan. We planned to observe and record the birds in a typical monoculture farm of purely corn, and compare them to the birds found in a polyculture farm with fifteen crops grown closely together. In our bag we touted clipboards, pink flagging, and meter-length measuring tape. We carried with us all the materials necessary to ensure that we were scientists. This would be a morning of accurate data collection, with proper notations and precise record keeping. I took out my field notebook and scribbled a heading in the top right corner.
Surveyors: Jon Gorter, Paige Schurr, Victoria Graves.
Conditions: 10 degrees celsius; clear skies with 0% cloud cover; no precipitation; steady, brisk winds out of the west and north, 2-3 on Beaufort scale.
Time and date: 8:12 AM, 10/22/2019.
Location: southwest field of Tantré Farms, off of Hayes road; Chelsea, MI
We scanned the horizon. Crows cawed in the distance. A red-tailed hawk circled over a neighboring field. A red-bellied woodpecker trilled in the adjacent woodlot. It was a relatively still morning.
Until the cranes showed up.
Out from the north, four cranes soared over tree and thicket, announcing their arrival with their typical blasting chorus. Gently gliding down, they landed quite close to us, just on the crest of the cornfield. They strutted across the field with legs like stilts, searching the furrowed ground for grain knocked loose and left behind. Standing four feet high, they have an almost human-like impression to them, and if you were to squint you might think that they were middle school kids with tan coats and red caps on. But it’s their dinosaur-esque call that shocks you into remembering that they are anything but human.
Aldo Leopold, one of the great conservationists of the twentieth century, had a particular affinity for sandhill cranes, and he describes their call with eloquence:
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”
In Leopold’s day, sandhill cranes were vanishing fast, to the point that they were nearly wiped off North America. Noticing this decline, Leopold lamented as he watched development continue to colonize stretches of Wisconsin marshland, which served as critical crane habitat.
“The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
In my field guide, I continued my data entry:
Notes: 4 Antigone canadensis (sandhill cranes) clustered in an open field. Searching for food along the ground. Partially undeveloped coloration present on one individual indicates at least one likely juvenile among parents.
The surface-level reality of that morning was a frigid wind that marked the process of seasonal changes and a chorus of cranes that echoed off woodlots. But I think Leopold is right to suggest there is more going on—a deeper reality—in the call of the crane than meets the ear. The cranes with whom I shared that morning were not independently existing there and then, but they were relics of a past stretching back literally millions of years. Moreover, the juvenile cranes that frolicked next to their parents were beacons of future generations of cranes that would exist on into the future.