During one’s short stint on our blue planet, some days stand out because of sadness and pain, others for the joy they bring. As humans we are privileged to witness natural phenomena likely to give wing to our imagination. Colorado’s San Luis Valley with its stunning scenery happens to be the stage where, for eons, the twice annual migration of the Rocky Mountain population of Sandhill Cranes to and from their summer breeding grounds takes place. In March of this year, I was again fortunate enough to immerse myself in this spectacle. Unlike a previous time, my hopes were not disappointed.
Between 18 and 25 thousand cranes might appear in any given year near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge (my 18 to 25 thousand reasons to keep returning). The vast majority are Greater Sandhill Cranes, not easily distinguished from their slightly smaller Lesser and Canadian cousins. On their way to the Greater Yellowstone area where they will raise the next generation, they pause between the middle of February and beginning of April to eat, eat, eat. On the refuge, fields of barley and wheat are mowed to coincide with their arrival, and the cranes obligingly gather early in the morning and again before sunset to fill their tummies. The feeding fields are wonderful places to observe these big birds, with their lanky limbs and crimson caps.
Not immediately obvious, their myriad numbers are composed of families, consisting of an adult pair and last year’s offspring (typically one). Mating for life, which can span two to three decades, spring feelings for one another are expressed by droll dances whose elements include hops of varying height, flaps of wings that span up to 78 inches, and contortions of long necks. After spending the winter with their descendants in the vicinity of New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and undertaking spring migration together, the juvenile is forced out by its parents, to fend for itself, until it starts its own family, between the ages of two and seven.
Full of commotion and commingling, these gatherings are furthermore sites of characteristic concerts. Each arriving or departing group of cranes is accompanied by guttural sounds unlike any others, emanating from long, coiled tracheas that transform the tones and attach to them an otherworldly quality. Even when the feathery hordes disperse to wet meadows or other mid-day destinations, their calls permeate the air. Across many miles, the awed spectator is never out of earshot of the vocalizations that evoke ancient history. For 2.5 million years these living relics and their ancestors have witnessed the earth’s ups and downs, and if we knew how to listen to their stories, we might learn valuable lessons about life, love, and loss.