Monday, December 14, 2009


While working in the west pasture, I heard the haunting call of the sandhill crane, a call that seems to come from within your head and simultaneously from all directions. It took me a moment to find the flock against the sun, but when I did it was startling: over 120 birds flying east-southeast in three V formations.

Did you ever notice how all the other birds quiet when a Sandhill calls? The Stellar Jays, the Chickadees, the finches that had moments before been chattering at me listened silently as their wiser relatives passed over. An Ojibwe elder once told me why: to paraphrase, he said the birds didn't know when to fly south. The bluebird tried leading, but he left too early and they ran out of food in the south. The chickadee tried, but he left too late and some of the birds froze to death. The hummingbird tried leading, but flew too fast and left some behind. Finally, the crane, the oldest and wisest bird, was the only one left. He knew when to leave, only everyone was so preoccupied with chattering and worrying, no one listened to him. Now they have learned their bitter lesson, and hush right up when the crane speaks.

As they passed by Saddle Mountain, a group of about forty birds split off from the others. They spread their wings and rode the drafts in circles, hundreds of feet in the air. I wondered if they were planning on resting, until I noticed the larger flock had seen them stop, and swung around in a big southern arc to rejoin the small, circling group. They all took up crying to one another, the small flock circling on a draft, the larger flock in disarray, trying to preserve their formation but unable to continue in any one direction. It was a disagreement! The birds were arguing! Their path was leading them directly over the West Elks, which must take a tremendous amount of energy to cross with the covering layer of snow. The small flock didn't want to cross the mountains tonight, and wouldn't be dissuaded.

A group of five split from the largest flock and headed off northeast, in defiance and impatience. They hadn't gotten far when the larger flock decided to concede to the decision of the original forty and head south. Wildly outnumbered, the five renegades turned and flew south too, racing to catch up. Their voices quickly quieted, as, united, they flew over Saddle Mountain together.