Nature got it right with the cranes. They have been around since the Eocene, which ended 34 million years ago. They are among the world’s oldest living birds and one of the planet’s most successful life-forms, having outlasted millions of species (99 percent of species that ever existed are now extinct). The particularly successful sandhill crane of North America has not changed appreciably in ten million years. There are 15 Gruidae species, and in all the human cultures that experience the birds, they are revered.
In my travels I have encountered cranes on three continents. Tibet, November 1995: Driving along the Yarlung River, we spot a flock of black-necked cranes in a marshy flat, but when we try to sneak closer on foot with our cameras, they see us from a long distance and, slowly lifting themselves up into the air on their enormous wings, take off. There are only 6,000 or so black-necks. These are making their way south, to spend the winter foraging on agricultural residue in Bhutan. Three hundred black-necks return each December to Phobjikha Valley, where in the morning and evening, as they take off to eat and dance and return for the night, they circle repeatedly around a monastery called Gangtey Gompa. The local Bhutanese believe them to be reincarnations of departed monks, and have for centuries performed elegant crane dances, tilting and sweeping long white wings attached to their arms. Cranes are the Bolshoi of animal dance. They dance at the drop of a hat, for all kinds of reasons, not just courtship.
Neolithic peoples in Turkey in 6500 B.C. imitated the dances of cranes as part of marriage rituals. Dance is one thing cranes are credited by many societies with giving us. Another is language, perhaps because they are so vocal and a single crane’s calls, amplified by its saxophone-shaped trachea—the windpipe in its long neck—can carry a mile. And unlike geese, with their disciplined, purposeful vees, cranes fly in loose, drifting, chimeric lines that are constantly, kaleidoscopically coming apart and forming, the ancient Greeks imagined, many letters. Crane hieroglyphs were applied to the Temples of Karnak 4,000 years ago.
In 1990 my wife and I were married in her village in southwestern Uganda. The festivities went on for three days, and all the while a couple of dozen gray-crowned cranes, with regal bonnets of sun-shot yellow feathers, were pecking and padding around in the adjacent savanna. The gray-crowned crane is my wife’s clan totem, so their presence was auspicious. Once common all over East Africa, this species is taking a terrible toll from local poachers who are selling them to the international pet trade. Only 30,000 gray-crowned cranes are left in all of Africa.
The sandhill cranes of North America are the most abundant crane species. Migrating sandhills come in three basic sizes—greater, lesser and the mid-size Canadian. I’ve seen the resident sandhills in Florida, three of them pecking for worms on a lawn outside Orlando, and several members of another resident population in Mississippi, which has just 25 breeding pairs. The Eastern population has rebounded dramatically from near extinction in the 1930s and is now up to more than 80,000. I saw a couple of big sandhills on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, just above the mouth of the Saguenay River, a few summers ago.
Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This staging is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on a par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou. It takes place in three waves of four to five weeks each, beginning in mid-February and ending in mid-April, during which birds that arrive emaciated from wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Chihuahua, Mexico, gain 20 percent of their body weight.
It usually peaks in the last week of March, which was the case in 2013. Wildlife photographer extraordinaire Melissa Groo and I hit it just right.