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HACKTREKS THE LIFE OF BIRDS

Mike Farley
SANDHILL CRANES

Photo: © Mike Farley

Sandhill Cranes are living in the stockwater pond near our back porch in Red Lodge, Montana. We see them late at night or early in the morning browsing through the fresh waters of the inlet where Willow Creek enters from the south and where sand and silt from the hills above have accumulated over time to create a shallow, sun-warmed, delta marsh rich in aquatic life, tender green shoots and small creatures ideal for their feeding. These prehistoric looking birds are rusty in color with a bald red crown, long pipestem legs, a huge flat-bottomed feather duster of a body and a generous spray of wing plumes.
They stand about three feet tall at their backs and by extending their long necks can hold their heads nearly five feet off the ground.
They have a wing span of about six feet.
They're just huge. ripples from the edge ... spring frogs in the mint and marsh grass Eight years ago when our son Tom was four- teen and first learning to drive, one flew up unexpectedly from the tall grass in the borrow ditch along-side our ranch road, smacked into the grille of his Chevy Blazer, rolled up over the hood and spread-eagled itself across the entire windshield where it commenced thrashing helplessly back and forth just inches from his incredulous eyes in a bizarre, squawking, death-agony straight out of 'Jurassic Park'. The experience scared Tom witless and sent him flying home in reverse gear, white as a sheet, to tell us in utter disbelief what he had just witnessed. We all rushed to the scene only to find the creature must have recovered and disappeared. We searched up and down the road and along both ditches but only found one large feather. still dry air the faroff drill of a woodpecker in the cottonwoods Seen from a distance feeding heads down in a pasture or meadow, Sandhills are so large they can easily be mistaken for small deer.
They sleep standing up with their long necks and heads folded into the ample feathers of their under-wings. They mate for life and are currently an endangered species. At first light each day, this pair in our pond greets the dawn by standing up on the levee and pumping out a long series of hollow, tril- ling, rattling cries unlike anything you've ever heard. "garaa-a-c-k, garaa-a-c-k!" The volume, pitch and timbre of this haunting and ethereal sound seems accomplished by stretching their necks upward and extending their beaks to the sky in the direction they wish to address, trans- forming themselves somehow into hollow tubes or echo chambers through which they take in air and then expel it over reed-like vocal chords from a diaphragm deep within their breast. sage covered hills awash in new pink hues sunrise

Unlike the mindless quacking of ducks or the honking babble of geese, this startling sound seems reserved for broadcast only at special times and for specific purposes. It requires a full-body effort and demands their complete attention, and ours. The sound could perhaps be mimicked by a barrel-chested man with a base clarinet, tenor sax or a bagpipe. Once heard it will not be forgotten. After a full minute or so of this commanding performance, they then begin their slow and stately walk out through the meadows and distant pastures hunting for insects and grass- hoppers, and on up into the surrounding hills to destinations known only to them to conduct their mysterious daily business. We've seen them fly away too, but usually they walk.
I hope that means they're comfortable here. warm breeze waves of meadow grass embrace me

Later this morning while Shirlee and I were out on the porch having our coffee, we heard once again their loud and spirited calls seem- ingly coming from very nearby, just west of our house somewhere, perhaps in our set of corrals over by the calving shed. I've heard it coming from that direction in the daytime before and even walked over there and snooped around a time or two trying without success to find them. This time however, after listening intently and meticulously scanning the entire area, we finally spotted them standing high on a hilltop to the west, a good two hundred yards away and up another hundred in elevation, certainly a long and steep climb for any walking bird, large or small. in the hayfield curious ears, and eyes whitetail deer Still, their sound seemed to be emanating from somewhere very near and acoustically distributed with equal blessing over the entire ranch by way of some mysterious system of stereophonic speakers. We glassed them with binoculars and watched with fascination as they stood there stately and tall in their feathery raiment as though oracles looking over the rest of us to proclaim some apocalyptic bird-wisdom to the entire valley. quiet still my soul, listen with my spirit.

© Mike Farley 2003
mikefarley@redlodge.com

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