After a day of sweeping rainstorms and gray skies, Tuesday’s twilight came with a soft southwesterly breeze and a sinking sun that spoke in clear tones and light that sought out every detail. As we rounded the second lap of a mile’s warmup on the Geneva Middle School track, a pair of large birds came over the hedgerow and set their wings for a landing. Their wingtips spread like fingers and their long necks were balanced by equally long legs. These were a pair of sandhill cranes. They arched their necks and swung to our right as we trotted on the inside lanes of the black rubber surface of the track.
“Whoa!” Sue exclaimed. She stopped in her tracks for a moment. Then we kept jogging and approached the cranes again. They were now walking on the track itself, curious at our presence perhaps but not afraid. ‘
“What are they doing here?” Sue asked.
“They probably have a nest right over the hill at Peck Farm Park,” I explained. “They’re here to eat right now.”
We paused to take photos and Sue walked ahead talking softly to the birds. One of them gave a short chortle in return. They were in the moment, as were we.
The birds wandered to the infield where one kept watch while the other fed on insects or worms gleaned from the infield. Their plumage was a wonderful russet color heightened by the low angle of the sun. Cranes vary in color from gray to rusty in tone, with the rust tone stemming from a combination of diet and preening themselves with iron-rich mud. Both these birds sported the golden rust plumage.
The breathing slots in their long thick beaks could be seen clearly at a close view of 40-50 feet as we passed while running each lap. The bright red “skull cap” on the front of the head was also visible. As they walked, their legs formed the classic crooked angle indicative of tall birds such as herons, egrets and cranes that emerged from the evolutionary process and dinosaurs stemming back more than 600 million years.
The Wikipedia description of the age of cranes as a species describes the wonderful history of this species of bird:
Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird. A 10-million-year-old crane fossil fromNebraska is said to be of this species, but this may be from a prehistoric relative or the direct ancestor of sandhill cranes and not belong in the genus Grus. The oldest unequivocal sandhill crane fossil is 2.5 million years old, older by half than the earliest remains of most living species of birds, primarily found from after the Pliocene/Pleistocene boundary some 1.8 million years ago. As these ancient sandhill cranes varied as much in size as present-day birds, those Pliocenefossils are sometimes described as new species. Grus haydeni may have been a prehistoric relative, or it may comprise material of a sandhill crane and its ancestor.
What this description actually tells us is that cranes like these are a connection to the very old history of earth. The voices of cranes have been ringing out across the earth’s landscape for far longer than human beings have held the awareness to categorize and name them. Our own meager evolutionary history extends back some 2.5 to 3.5 million years, when apes first developed the ability to walk erect, use their hands and minds to build tools and push our evolutionary progress along toward the intelligence we now enjoy today.
Convergences such as these where ancient lives mix in the sunlight traveling millions of miles to earth are truly magical. As Sue and I conducted our respective workouts, our minds fell to the task of movement while the cranes casually walked and fed in the grassy infield. We peacefully shared the space until suddenly the cranes felt the urge and time to leave. They lifted quickly on a six-foot wingspan and flew off toward the marsh and pond where somewhere their nest may lie snuggled among the cattails.
They have come a long journey no doubt. This information from a WhoZoo.com describes the lifestyle of the sandhill crane:
Sandhill cranes travel as much as 350 miles per day while migrating. They fly at anywhere from 14 to 51 miles per hour in a V formation–often as high as 12,000 feet. Their nesting grounds are through the northern United States and extreme northeast Siberia, and they arrive in early to mid May. Nests in the wetland areas are made from dominant vegetation, while nests in drier areas are sparsely prepared. These cranes usually begin breeding at 7 years old and mate with only one partner for life. Two eggs are laid and both sexes incubate. These eggs hatch in 29-32 days, and the nestlings can walk immediately. This trait is why the young cranes are called colts.
It is a somewhat strange thing to juxtapose the purposeful presence of a pair of sandhill cranes with our efforts running around the track. As a lifelong birder I realize that sandhills and many species of cranes around the world depend on human intervention for survival. The International Crane Foundation headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin takes an active role in these conservation efforts. The organization works with governments around the world to identify populations of crane species and document their needs from habitat to migration routes. In the United States it could be argued that the work of the International Crane Foundation has saved the Whooping Crane from extinction.
In our area of Illinois sandhill cranes were extremely rare as recently as the 1980s. Thanks to conservation of wetland habitats and improvement in environmental quality (reduction in certain pesticides, for example) sandhill cranes have become numerous enough to breed with great frequency in Illinois.
Still I recall a morning 20 years ago when the mystic quality of cranes first struck me. The morning sun had barely crested the horizon when I spied a pair of tall gray cranes walking a flat next to the lake at Dick Young Forest Preserve, an Illinois Nature Preserve west of Batavia, Illinois. As I used binoculars to observe the cranes, the male began dancing around the female. His wings were illuminated by the morning light, glowing as if afire. Then he rose above the female and mounted her as both birds raised their wings in the act of consummation.
Those birds raised young that spring, and cranes have returned every year to Dick Young and many other Illinois marshes.
So it’s not an entire surprise that sandhills should be comfortable around a pair of runners on a twilight in May. They have come to recognize that people do a lot of weird things that cranes can ignore without risk. Some of us are even built a bit like cranes. Skinny legs.
Sharing that space for an hour with a pair anciently wonderful birds is still a precious gift. As we ran our workout of 6 X 800 with 400 intervals mixed in, the sun slowly fell and the air cooled. We were primal in our movements and yet lifted by the circumstance. It is no exaggeration to state that we felt the wind beneath our wings.