The Silence of the Sandhills

Sixty, seventy sandhill cranes. The two “Vs” of the flock compress and stretch, subtly, in a slow, wide turn. Curiously, two birds beeline to the south and appear to break away. But, as the main flock circles in its deliberate workings to find rising air, the outliers, in their own circling, intersect the flock and reabsorb back into it.

It is cold here in this Colorado mountain town at eight thousand feet elevation. Tendrils of smoky morning fog rise and fall over timbered crags. Tatters of clouds hang, drift, in the wake of this last storm, breaking now, but not yet broken. Looming above this cloistered valley are peaks from ten thousand to thirteen thousand feet; there is even a “fourteener” nearby, maybe two miles as the crow flies.

From my front sidewalk, these cranes appear to be flying at about twelve thousand feet, but climbing, getting smaller and smaller. That is no small feat for them: at four feet tall and with a wingspan wider than I can spread my arms, they are one of the largest birds on the planet.

So, where have these huge birds come from and where are they going? This route would have likely brought them from the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, which they may have called home during the breeding season. Or they may have stopped there to rest and feed from their trek from much farther north, maybe even as far as the Yukon. These birds could winter not too far away in New Mexico, or they could even rest a few days there and resume their migration deep into Mexico. For some reason I hope they have come from far, far away, and are heading even farther. That seems grander, better. More befitting.

The birds are tiny now, but their calls are clear and close. I first heard them while puttering in the backyard and looked up at once. I grew up hearing their penetrating calls and seeing their endless Vs in southeastern New Mexico. Cranes have a windpipe that loops within their breastbone, like a curl on a brass musical instrument. This likely helps produce their loud and resonating calls. Do we even have the proper letters in our alphabet to describe their call? Here I will settle on: kdr-r-r-o-o, kdr-r-r-o-o, kdr-r-r-o-o. But sometimes I hear less of the “k” and more of a “d.” Their loud, measured calls from on high speak not so much of their immediate passage—their journey across this most formidable mountain range—but of more. It is a heralding to their very existence, to their very being.

It is staggering—unbelievable really—how long cranes have journeyed up and down this continent. Rungs of latitude descended, ascended. This species (or more appropriately, the almost indistinguishable ancestors of the species still residing on the continent today) is millions of years old. They have made this journey, surfed on and fought these winds, soared and beat wings, borne themselves over these jagged mountains from time immemorial, before people inhabited this landscape. People are newcomers, having arrived here about forty thousand years ago, give or take. These big birds saw vast sheets of ice crawl down this continent like something thickly spilled, then sucked back. They saw great, strange beasts: saber-toothed tigers and huge woolly mammoths. Not too long ago, they saw the first few smokes from the campfires of the first people. Then, many small smokes, dotting the landscape from Canada to Mexico. The smokes of the Lake and Kootenai, the Kalispell, Coeur D’Alene, Flathead, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Bannock, Ute, Navajo, the Apache and Jumano.

But recently, like yesterday in the relative time line of history, the landscape began to change greatly and suddenly—changes that found no match in the collective consciousness of the species. The small smokes of the first people became many and bigger smokes of the next people. Along creeks and rivers and high up into the mountains. This is said to have been spoken by Sweet Medicine, a Cheyenne prophet and teacher:

“There are all kinds of people you will meet someday … they will be people who will not get tired, but will keep pushing forward, going, going all the time.”

And suddenly, the cranes saw prairie and rolling grassy hills become ever-changing quilts of tillage; some of these swatches became curiously and perfectly round. Vast swaths of bare ground appeared where forests once stood. The once blue-green creeks and rivers ran brown and fast. Great rivers suddenly ran in trickles: Some even stopped flowing altogether and swelled into huge lakes. Spiderwebs of gouged earth connected dwellings, towns, and deep drillings into the earth, hidden from sight at ground level by hill and tree—but from on high, tentacles of scars, reaching up and out and most everywhere. Branching, then branching again, like arteries to capillaries. The landscape’s mantle fractured like plate glass. And what must these great old birds think of the airships that thunder above them? The great growling and the twin tornadoes of rolling, churning contrail, stretched from horizon to horizon, blasting their way through even the most solid walls of air, never once circling, straight as straight can be?

An auspicious totem in almost all cultures, cranes have long been associated with balance, grace, longevity, and even immortality. A crane totem is a harbinger of a long, good life. In fables and mythology, cranes are problem solvers and wise teachers.

The two Vs have morphed into one. The point of the V, the prow of the formation, slides to one side of the string of birds and in time back over toward the other. Each bird flies in the wake of the bird in front of it, reducing wind resistance. The birds in front are breaking the wind trail for the birds behind. Along the line, each bird helps, each bird benefits. Tired birds fall back and rested birds move forward. In their V, they can see each other and keep track of individual spacing and speed. They are unified and communal, but still individuals. They have had lots of time to work this out. And it seems they well have.

Kdr-r-r-o-o. Kdr-r-r-o-o. Kdr-r-r-o-o. These lines of sandhill cranes, composed of parents and their young, this year’s and last year’s, and maybe even a year or two before that. Loose familial groups of those who feed and flock together. Mates that have made this great journey for fifteen or twenty  years and the young who are traversing the winds over these most formidable mountains for the first time. Mates monogamous, faithful to a fault. Parents unfailing, steadfast. As graceful, unflagging, and resolute in life as they are in flight.

Kdr-r-r-o-o. Kdr-r-r-o-o. Kdr-r-r-o-o. If they could only talk, we say, what stories they could tell. But listen. Hear them? Hear their clear and measured calling? Their voices are no less than a metronoming of the ages, of time eternal. Their voices, mere rivulets that meet to form runnels—runnels that carve their way into the very timescape of this world, centimeter by centimeter.

Thirty or forty air miles and they will be past these mountains, free of the great halls of wind. Not far then, is Bosque del Apache, a huge table of wetlands and fields of grain, set for their brief stopover to rest and re-nourish before they continue their journey into Mexico. Or, maybe they will settle in at the Bosque, call it home for the winter. Call it good.

But here, the cranes have earned their fierce, cold altitude and have pointed their V south, up and over these Rocky Mountains, and have suddenly disappeared. Hanging in the cold air as the sun heals the little wounds from the breaking storm: a ringing. The call of the crane is now the quiet; the silence it leaves is now the sound.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe & Save!

ONE YEAR (6 ISSUES) of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine
GET FREE AND INSTANT ACCESS to our digital edition
SAVE 33% off newsstand prices
PAY ONE LOW PRICE of $19.99!
Scroll Up