A post for the week of Valentine's Day...
In the middle of a typical winter morning, the nearly 22,000 Sandhill Cranes that roost in the playa lake at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area are supposed to be feeding in the farm fields, recycling waste corn into nutrient-rich guano, so it was a shock to see two - just two - cranes standing a few yards from the viewing platform. It didn't take long to figure out why these cranes were not breakfasting with their comrades. One was fluffed, its eyes and red forecrown dull. As we watched, its neck folded into a tight "S," its long black bill came to rest to its breast, and its orange eyes closed against the blustery winds.
What could be wrong? There was no obvious sign of injury - no drooping wing, dangling leg, or bloody wound. Could it be toxic lead pellets in its gizzard, mistaken for grit or grain, or embedded in its body from a hunter's wayward shot? Pesticides or aflatoxin in the corn it's been eating? West Nile virus? Or even old age? Cranes can live more than two decades, but few do.
From fall through spring, safety in numbers is the dominant survival strategy for the three migratory subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. A single crane is an easy mark for a hungry eagle, and two are not much safer than one. The second crane could have left around sunrise with the rest of the enormous flock to fill its crop and lay on fat for the migration to come, but on this chilly morning a deeper need took priority over an empty belly and the vulnerability of being left behind. Cranes bond for life, and within the flocks they travel in pairs and small family groups, maintaining a separate identity among the multitudes. The healthy bird remained where it was needed - at its mate's side, vigilant. Feeling helpless and humbled, I turned my heart and mind away from what the future might bring for these two.
That was yesterday. Returning to the crane roost today, I half expected to see a pile of gray feathers where the crane pair had stood, but there was no sign. I'll take this as cause for optimism, as reason to believe that the sickly bird rallied after a night's rest and returned with its devoted mate to the fields this morning to continue preparing for their long journey to the nesting grounds. May they have many more years together and many healthy children and grandchildren that will return to the Sulphur Spring Valley in decades to come. And may future generations of our kind continue to find inspiration in the lives of cranes. --SW