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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.





Just What I Wanted


No chocolate or roses for me for Valentine’s Day. Instead, Husband and I took a day trip. Up Montsearch-1 (1)erey mountain, across Grassy Cove, through Grandview and Dayton. On to Birchwood to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge – a place on my wintertime bucket list for a few years.

Since right after Christmas, I’d moved a post-it note that read “See Sandhill Cranes” from week to week on my calendar. Busyness and snow got in the way. Finally, I suggested that last Friday was the day. “Good idea! How about it can be your Valentine gift?” Husband said. I agreed. In the early 1990s, Eastern Sandhill Cranes began wintering where the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers converge. The days to see them this year were growing short.

As we followed a diesel-powered log-hauling truck for twenty miles on a two-lane curvy road, I wondered if we were making this 180-mile round trip to see the wetlands where the cranes had been, but had deserted. Maybe there would be a few birds.

One car was parked near a wooden platform at the end of a gravel road. Husband and I donned our hooded coats and gloves. Please let there be birds. We carried binoculars and walked toward the viewing area. I heard static croaks before seeing cranes, and not only were there birds, but also a volunteer guide.

Charles Murray, a retired high school science teacher, stood beside his spotting scope mounted on a tripod. He grinned, nodded, and inquired if we’d seen the cranes before. “First time. Been on my bucket list for a while,” I said as I watched cranes feed on grass in a field. “I’m glad they’re still here.”

“You picked a good day. More here today than yesterday.” Charles would know because he came everyday – just to see the numbers (cranes) and spot other birds. Eagles and ducks and pelicans.

About 50 cranes stood along the river shoreline. Many others glided on the smooth water and more stood on the far shore. Using my binoculars, I marveled at the size of those closest in the grassy field. And looking through Charles’s scope, the cranes’ bright orange eyes looked dime size, and they seemed close enough to touch.

Charles has watched and studied birds for years. I learned that the bright red spot on top of a white crane’s head is skin, not feathers. Cranes stand three to four feet tall and weigh about ten pounds. They mate for life. “People can’t tell which is the male or female. They look alike to us, but obviously the birds can tell the difference,” Charles said and then chuckled. Cranes are omnivorous, eating grain in the field and critters along the shoreline. They aren’t good fishermen and were probably enticed to stop in Tennessee, instead of wintering in Florida, when they spotted the Hiwassee’s mud flats.

At one time, this area was home to many fowl species, but the cranes have crowded them out. Using his scope, Charles found ruddy ducks and mallards. As I looked, three cranes flew toward me. I ducked, but they were high above my head. “You were scope bombed,” Charles said and laughed. “You know, like photo bombed.”

It was time for Charles to mosey on because his cats at home needed attention. Husband and I headed back to our car. I’d seen the Sandhill Cranes.

And come March when I hear the loud croaks and trumpet calls in the sky above my house, I’ll marvel at the beauty of the migrating cranes and I’ll think of my Valentine present. Just what I wanted.