You can’t mistake Sandhill cranes, resplendent with red crowns, wide wing spans, and long legs.
Every fall, they come to Kentucky by the thousands, transients pursuing a rest stop as they wing their way to winter feeding grounds in the Mississippi delta, Florida, Mexico and Cuba. They draw their name from their principal migratory feeding ground along the Platte in Nebraska, with its 75-mile stretch of grass secured sand dunes.
They’re enchanting birds to watch and listen to. You can hear them coming a long ways off in what sounds like a thunderous French r made deep within the throat. These are creatures who sing and dance. Couples, who mate for life and live up to 20 years, actually sing in mutual cadence, sometimes leaping up and down.
They’re among our most ancient birds, stretching back several million years and preceding humans. By the early part of the Twentieth Century they had been hunted virtually to extinction. Through careful conservation, they’ve rebounded, though still threatened principally by habitat loss in Mississippi and Cuba.
Lately, they’ve been in my thoughts. Last spring I had been reading Carl Safina’s impassioned lament for nature’s vanishing wildlife, The View from Lazy Point, and several times he alluded to and quoted Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a collection of Thoreau-like observations on nature and man’s troubling despoilment of it. I was not disappointed.
In the course of this beautifully written book, Leopold comes upon the Sandhill crane:
A glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spiral to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.
When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the chorus 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.
The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.
This week here in Kentucky, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced it will take applications for permits from Nov. 15 through Nov. 30 and hold a drawing Dec. 5 to select up to 400 hunters, the first state to do so East of the Mississippi. Hunters may take up to two sandhill crane then, or until hunters take 400 birds. The season will begin December 17.