LIFE OF BIRDS
Photo: © Mike Farley
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
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
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