Cranes and Wildness

I walked from our house to the barn, went in and out the back and stood looking east across our pasture. No birds flew over the pasture. No birds perched where I could see them in the trees along the fence rows of the pasture or the woods beyond. I heard no birds sing. All appeared still, without movement, lifeless, except for our horses which took a step or two now and then, raised and lowered their heads, grazing quietly.

Then I heard a sound, a rolling warble, from the sky behind, barely audible at first, becoming louder, closer. Many people call that call bugling. But it’s softer, to me, than the notes of a bugle. It’s a wild call and as the callers came into view they added wildness to the quiet scene before me.

There were two of them, two big birds, one flying to one side and slightly behind the other. Each flew with long neck extended in front, long legs trailing to the back. Their wings were big and broad and beat rather slowly, purposefully, a little faster on each upbeat. They were cranes of course, sand-hill cranes.

There are fifteen species of crane in the world, two of them, sandhill and whooping in North America. Nearly all are threatened or endangered. Coincidentally one of the cranes of North America, the sandhill, is the most common, the most numerous species of crane in the world while the other North American species, the whooping crane, is the least common, the most endangered.

Though the most common of cranes and nesting in Indiana, sandhill cranes are not numerous in the state except at a staging area in western Indiana where they gather during spring and fall migration. Nor are they common in Michigan though their nesting range generally is to the north of Indiana. But sandhill cranes are not only more numerous than other species of cranes, they are increasing and expanding their range.

As for nesting in Indiana, there are reports of nests in 1890, 1892, 1897, one in 1929, then one in 1982. Now there are reports every spring and summer of sandhill crane nests and of pairs of cranes. There has to have been a nest at most a few miles north of our home this year and for the past few years for we have often seen, and more often heard a pair of sandhills in spring and summer when we’ve driven north. We’ve heard and occasionally seen a pair flying over our property.

Sandhill cranes are regarded as birds of the wild. They nest on the ground in grassy wetlands where people enter seldom or not at all, places where there are not only no people but no sign of people. In the vicinity of a sandhill crane nest there are no roads, no buildings, no power lines.

Sandhill cranes do enter the lands of people however. They land in fields of corn and eat corn. They land in fields where corn or other grain has been harvested and eat grain that was dropped. They land in pastures and mowed hay fields and eat grasshoppers and other insects, mice and voles.

I have seen sandhill cranes feeding in harvested fields, hundreds, even thousands in fields during migration. I have seen two in fields within miles of my home during spring and summer, three in late summer, a pair with a young one, a fledgling. But sandhill cranes remain symbols of wildness to me and the two I saw fly over our pasture added wildness to a quiet morning scene.

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