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Lessons Learned from Cranes

I heard them before I saw them. Loud, rattling calls like a bugle stuck on an off key F#. Sometimes a single Sandhill Crane flew overhead, but most often it was a flock in a V-shaped formation. And sometimes I heard them, but never saw them, probably because their calls can be heard up to 2.5 miles away.

I wish I’d kept track of the number of times I looked up to see cranes during December. Whether in my house or outside, I could hear their loud calls as they flew from their northern habitat to warmer grounds. Many Sandhills stopover or winter at the Hiawasse Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, about 85 miles from Cookeville.

The cranes unique bugle calls amuse me, but I’m amazed by the way they fly in formation. The V shape serves two purposes: to conserve energy and to keep track of each bird. The first bird works hardest to break the wind and splits it into smaller currents. The birds that follow catch those currents and use them as support. And the currents are split from bird to bird until the ones at the tail of the V practically get a free ride.

Each bird flies about a meter behind and a meter beside the one it follows. In this arrangement, they can keep track of each other. One day I watched a flock of at least thirty birds and as they went out of sight, I heard a weak rattle. One lone bird flapped slowly at a lower level than those I’d watched and as he seemed to struggle, I heard another crane calling and flying toward him.

When the hard-working strong leader of the V becomes tired, he drops back, often to the end of the line, and another crane takes the #1 position. According to nationalgeaographic.com, a scientist studied pelicans that were fitted with heart-rate monitors and he found that birds at the back of the V had slower heart rates than those in front and flapped less often. Each bird in the V formation can take a turn as leader working hard for a short time and then slacking near the end.

Sandhill cranes gather in social units and families and they mate for life. But a lone, isolated crane will be taken into a flock and it even helps parent young birds.

These birds’ instinctive behavior teaches lessons. Work together and follow a leader, and take turns being the leader. No one has to be in charge all the time and everyone needs time out. Watch out for each other and when a teammate, a friend, or a member of the group needs help, drop out of routine and lend a hand. Look for the loners. Watch those that don’t have built-in support and include them.

As I write the last words of this column, a loud call, a rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” grabs my attention. A couple of Sandhills. I hope they find a flock.

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