Linking us to the Heavens

A full moon has risen here over the prairie reflecting flecks of snow swirling in a brittle breeze. Depths of our long winter. Now in the middle of February with spring feeling so ever distant, word comes that one of the highest number of Sandhill Cranes have already arrived along the North Platte in central Nebraska. This high number of Sandhills are more typical in the first or second week of March, according to an ornithologist with the Crane Trust.

Maybe time is now measured for this present grip of winter. Bless the cranes!

If swans form creative art on still waters, cranes link us to the heavens. Such promise gives me hope while bringing back a wonderful memory from this past summer when a dear old friend, Michael Muir, and I followed a visit to the Aldo Leopold digs near Baraboo, WI, by pulling into nearby parking lot of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).

Known for his reputation around Dubuque for his sarcasm, which may have been chiseled and honed back in the late 1960s when he was hanging with a small group of us fledgling journalists at the Telegraph-Herald, he blurted, “Realize, of course, that this is a ‘crane zoo.” At that precise moment my eyes were focused on a crane sculpture so I didn’t catch the twinkle in his eyes that typically accompanies such a comment.

Red-crowned Cranes (in reflection) breed in large wetlands in temperate East Asia. In the winter, the mainland population divides into two or three wintering subpopulations, wintering along rivers and in coastal and freshwater marshes in Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula. There are two main breeding populations: a migratory population on the East Asia mainland (northeastern China and Russia), and a resident population on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Michael wasn’t too far off, all sarcasm aside. This wouldn’t hold the same magic found in the midst of a migration, nor was this the intention. Enclosed in spacious pens are all 15 worldwide species of cranes, each pen perhaps an acre or more in size with each containing a wading pond. His “zoo” comment referenced overhead netting stretched over each pen to keep the birds enclosed for the wealth of research being conducted on the various species, some of which are bordering on extinction. The ICF is, after all, a research facility that has operated here since 1973, and education is a huge part of that effort. Eggs are collected and moved to a separate facility that was off limits to visitors. Work here is ongoing and perhaps may lead to keeping some of the more vulnerable cranes from extinction. 

Each species was paired, and none seemed too concerned about much of anything, squawking and meandering through their respective pens. Seating areas at each of the individual sites held both educational panels and maps of where one would find them in the wild. Each map indicated both their wintering sites and summer breeding regions along with their migration routes. 

Of the 15 species, all but four are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. One would think our very own Whooping Crane heads the list of the critically endangered, yet it’s the Siberian Crane that claims this dubious honor. The Whooping Cranes aren’t far behind, however. Among those that aren’t on the list are the Sandhill Cranes, and there are even hunting seasons in some states for them. Or as Michael quipped, “What’s that about?” Without sarcasm.

Blue Cranes of Africa … both the Xhosa and Zulu tribes in Africa revere the Blue Crane. Zulu royalty were the only tribe members traditionally allowed to wear Blue Crane feathers, while only Xhosa warriors were permitted to wear Blue Crane feathers into battle.

In the words of the ICF, “Reverence alone, unfortunately, has not been enough to sustain the world’s crane populations in the wake of mankind’s rapacious lust for land and resources. Squeezed into ever-shrinking habitat reserves, nearly half of the fifteen species of cranes are presently threatened or endangered, qualifying the family Gruiidae as one of the most pressured groups of birds on earth. The ICF has pursued a multidimensional program of scientific research, captive propagation, education, and preservation of crane habitats worldwide. In these efforts they (the cranes) have made great strides.”

Although my first sighting of Sandhill Cranes was in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in the mid-1970s (where I also saw my first Whooping Crane), heading to central Nebraska and the Upper Platte River may become an annual pilgrimage for me. Yet, what caught my attention at the ICF was both in the number of worldwide species as well as the unique differences between them. While the ICF exists for education and research, for me their site offered an unexpected and captive experience for my photography. 

Gray Crowned Crane … is a primitive species of crowned cranes dating back in the fossil record to the Eocene Epoch (56 to 33.9 million years ago). At least 11 species of crowned cranes once existed in Europe and North America. However, because crowned cranes are not cold hardy it is believed they died out in these areas as the Earth cooled and only survived in warmer Africa.

In my pursuit I no doubt bored my dear friend, although he was patient and kind. I found myself mesmerized by the different plumage of the crane species, birds I will likely never see in their natural habitat. Especially those that migrate between the Far East and the wilds of Siberia along with those from the African Plain. 

I found myself standing and focusing on each of the pairs, some longer than others. Our two native species bookended the loop, beginning with the Sandhill Crane next to the visitor’s center. At the very end were the Whooping Cranes, and their enclosure came without the overhead netting. In between were the 13 other species along with trails that also led off into a 65 acre prairie that housed the distant main research facility.

We were the first to enter the facility that morning. Those in the gift shop and the “rangers” who mingled with the guests were all knowledgeable and helpful, answering questions they’ve no doubt heard so many times. For example, this is one was answered at least a half dozen times that morning: “Perhaps the easiest way to tell cranes from herons and egrets is that cranes fly with a straight neck whereas herons and egrets do not. Their flight is with curved necks.”

Eurasian Craneslike the Sandhills, one of the least vulnerable. The breeding range of the Eurasian Crane extends from northern and western Europe across Eurasia to northern Mongolia, northern China and eastern Siberia. The winter range includes portions of France and the Iberian Peninsula, regions along the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas, north and east Africa, the Middle East, India and southern and eastern China.

Michael and I spent perhaps our longest time observing the Whooping Cranes, who were joined by a nervous number of flighty Cedar Waxwings. When we entered the vast seating area facing the Whooping Crane pen the pair was lounging in the shaded grass. Eventually one rose and meandered around the bank above a small pond, then threaded its way through the knee-high grass to the edge of the water to drink. We had entered this particular compound close to noon, so the heat and humidity had increased significantly since our arrival three hours earlier. Soon the second crane stood and ambled down to join the other one. It was felt as if we were infringing on their privacy. That feeling seems rather imminent around Whooping Cranes, birds earning a reverence akin to worship. Yes, worship, for some cultures, particularly in Asian countries, places cranes in such status.

Cranes are particularly prominent in the art and mythology that dates back to the earliest Asian civilizations. The Chinese consider a crane as the prince of all feathered creatures giving it a legendary status, embodying longevity and peace. Cranes are believed to be mythical creatures with lives lasting for thousands of years. The Japanese are particularly fond of cranes, and their paper-folding origami is a traditional art form. To them cranes are often referred to as “birds of happiness” …  their wide-spread wings believed to provide protection. Mothers will recite this traditional prayer in concern for their children:

“O flock of heavenly cranes … cover my child with your wings.”

Whooping Crane … Two distinct migratory populations summer in northwestern Canada and central Wisconsin and winter along the Gulf Coast of Texas and the southeastern United States, respectively. Small, non-migratory populations live in central Florida and coastal Louisiana. Endangered with slightly more than 800 remaining alive.

The day before Michael and I visited the ICF we had paid homage to the late naturalist Aldo Leopold, whose farm and cabin are nestled nearby along a bend of the Wisconsin River. Leopold was as enamored by cranes as were his Asian brothern far across the seas. Mentions of the Sandhills can be found throughout his writings, and he gives particular homage in his essay, “Marshland Elegy.”

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words,” he wrote. 

The ICF was a special place, and graced me with some special images. Now, as the snow swirls in the gleam of this full February moon, I think of the North Platte; of peering through opened windows of a chilly plywood blind listening to the thousands of Sandhills seeking protection in the shallow waters and sandbar isles up and down the river. Of watching their unique beauty in easing from the skies to the protective waters; and again, hearing them rise from the darkened river in hopes some will remain until the sun provides enough light to witness and photograph yet another magical moment … when the heavenly cranes may once again cover my soul with their widened wings.

Sandhill Cranes coming for a landing on the North Platte River in Central Nebraska.

And now, thanks to ICF’s “crane zoo,” to fully realize the magic and beauty of similar migrations extending across many lands and waters.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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