The sandhill crane lay dead in a roadside ditch. I’d read about its demise on a Facebook post earlier that morning. A school bus driver had seen the bird while covering her route. She’d seen the crane family––mother, father and “colt” of the year––many times while driving kids to the nearby elementary school. Now one of them was dead.
And we’ll get to the significance of that incident in a moment.
Because own relationship with sandhill cranes goes way back to March 27, 1973. That’s when my brother and I were playing catch in the street in front of our home at 1108 S. 11th Avenue in St. Charles, Illinois. By that time in our lives, we’d already been birders for almost three years. Our interests had been stoked by my eldest brother’s enrollment in a college ornithology class. We’d been adding birds to our life list through every season of the year.
Athletes and birders
Most of this was done between our involvement in year-round sports. I was by then an athlete in cross country, basketball and track and field. All those practices and games absorbed much of our time. But when we had a chance, we’d escape to the woods and fields or bird the banks of the Fox River.
Yet nothing prepared us for the moment when a flock of more than 400 sandhill cranes came flying through the grey skies over our heads that March day. At first, we only heard them. We paused in our game of catch and wondered at the sound; a low, sort of guttural call that carries quite a long distance.
Then the first vee of birds showed up over the trees and they kept on coming. We didn’t even have time to run inside and grab the binoculars. Instead, we stood with our necks craned as the flock passed over like military aircraft headed for a bombing mission. There were so many it took them several minutes to pass. We watched them disappear to the north and then kept our eyes and ears peeled for more. But that was all.
Those were the first wild sandhill cranes we’d ever witnessed. In the intervening years, there were increasing reports of pairs breeding in local marshes. A statewide census was conducted to monitor their populations in Illinois, where they had once bred commonly but were then almost endangered as a result of habitat loss and other factors.
Slowly at first, their populations did rebound. Now there are cranes breeding all over northern Illinois. They are a common sight at most marshes. They even stroll through suburban neighborhoods plucking food from the ground.
But with that establishment of home turf among humans, there are also greater risks of mortality for their young. This is particularly true in areas with busy roads. The bird that was found along Deerpath Road near my home was only one such victim. Coyotes also steal a few birds, and others die from causes we may never know about. Nature has an entirely objective process of selection in place. Yet sandhill cranes have descended from lines of birds extending 10 million years back in time. The Wiki description of this bird’s origins is fascinating:
“Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird. A 10-million-year-old crane fossil from Nebraska 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 Pliocene fossils 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.
But most significantly these days, we’re learning that birds are actually…dinosaurs that have survived a thin lineage to flourish into all new species that occupy the whole earth.
Thus sandhill cranes have an evolutionary history about parallel in terms of timeline with that of the species homo sapiens. Many times I’ve stood in an early morning marsh and wondered at the sound of their calls resonating over the water. Those calls have a haunting quality about them. And I have also witnessed the birds in full mating ritual. The male and female dance around each other in fanciful ways, raising their wings and bowing their heads. One April morning I witnessed a pair copulate with the sun lighting their wing feathers as if they were angels. It is one of the most magical moments ever to be witnessed in nature.
Cranes are such large birds, and seem possessed of much intelligence and awareness, that they almost defy our categorization of them. Perhaps that is why human beings identify so closely with these birds. Thus when a crane is struck down, people seem to feel a particular regret. Indeed, in many Asian countries cranes are regarded as mythically significant beings.
“In Japan, the crane or tsuru, is a national treasure. It is the symbol of longevity and good luck because it was thought to have a life span of a thousand years. Tsuru are also monogamous, therefore, often used for wedding decor. An example of this is seen on formal wedding kimonos, and the uchikake, a decorative kimono that goes over the actual kimono, where beautiful images of tsuru are often embroidered.”
It is these connections to nature that seem so vital to human existence. To garner some perspective on these connections, I turned to a close friend whose wife is Ph.D psychologist. He is also a brilliant writer and a friend in whom I’ve confided so many times I can never return the favor. I shared with him the story of this fallen crane, and how it seemed to affect people. This is what he wrote me in return:
“I think it’s like that for most of us. Human suffering is extremely hard to get our heads and hearts completely around. When you get to the heart of it, literally, it can paralyze us emotionally. To really think of the indiscriminate barrel-bombing of the Syrian population, with kids missing parents, and limbs – it’s just too hard. For us to conceive of an innocent pair of cyclists, circumnavigating the globe (again) being caught by ISIS and having their heads hacked off for video propaganda is a trauma that normal, empathetic people cannot hold in their hearts for long.
So we store all that emotion up, and then we see a dead bird, or dog, or cat and we transfer all that injustice and pain onto that animal, which represents all the unfairness and pain that this world can deliver onto people, the ones we know and love, and strangers whose stories reach us and tear at our hearts. The dead animal is a trip-switch that lowers the walls put up to guard our feelings about fellow man, and shows us that we are not emotional robots. Not quite Orwellian zombies. At least not yet.”
That may explain why I felt such compunction to honor the fallen crane by putting its death to some use in life. So I contacted a group called the Bird Collision Monitors, a non-profit that literally walks the streets of Chicago during spring and fall collecting birds that have collided with buildings in the city. They bring the dead ones to be turned into scientific specimens at the Field Museum of Chicago. They take injured or live birds out for assessment and rehabilitation to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, thirty miles outside Chicago in the suburbs.
The crane was still baking in the heat of the day when I pulled up to collect it from the ditch. I slipped the tall (almost four feet) specimen into a plastic bag and placed in the back of my Subaru. That evening, my wife and our kids had a laugh at my propensity for collecting dead things to study over the years. During my days as a wildlife painted, I’ve either picked up and studied or taken photos of wild creatures of all sorts. A few of them wound up in our refrigerator and that habit is deemed too gross to handle by those who aren’t accustomed to dealing with wildlife, dead or alive, in the hand.
But I was trained in taxidermy during Field Biology at Luther College. One gets used to the sensations of dead things in the hand. I stuffed birds and mice and all sorts of other things. It is a lesson in appreciation when you’ve skinned a bird and turned it inside out all the way to the grip of its eyelids around the eyes.
And one day my classmates in biology played a prank on me while working the dishroom at the college. They lopped the head off a squirrel and carried it over to be garnished with lettuce and a big carrot in its teeth. They sent it in on a cafeteria tray with its gnarly orange incisor teeth exposed as if it was biting the carrot. The gal working next to me literally swooned as it came into view.
I found it hilarious, however.
Many times on long runs I’d spy road kill that was in good shape along the highway. There were owls and hawks, turkeys and pheasants. It is illegal to pick up some of that stuff and keep it. Bird protection laws prohibit owning the body parts of protected species. Yet in my work as a wildlife artist, I felt justified in turning those bits of nature into art the best way I knew how.
So I didn’t feel weird at all driving the deceased sandhill crane over to the wildlife center so that it could be frozen and passed along to the Field Museum for scientific purposes. My wife even ignored the smell of the dead crane as we drove her up to the train for her morning commute. She must love me, that’s all I can say.
Because in the end, I feel that I’ve honored the short life of that bird and its evolutionary history as well. We all become more human by caring about the living things around us. Life has flourished and vanished in big ways and through massive extinctions at least five times on this planet earth. Despite what some may claim in their reading of the Bible, it is a rude assumption to think that human beings really enjoy any special status. After all, the Good Book claims that even God wiped out all but a few of the human species during a great flood. Supposedly our rainbows are signs that God won’t do that ever again.
But I prefer the more connected symbolism of acknowledging and respecting the death of a crane, and what it teaches us about life.
You simply can’t appreciate it enough, perhaps until it’s gone.