A few small groups return to the sandbar, floating down with their open wings cupping the air like parachutes and their landing gear (legs dangling down) deployed. The deafening hysterical chain reaction of thousands of them taking to the sky at once makes it clear that these are highly social, gregarious birds who take cues from one another.
Bill Taddicken, Rowe’s director, tells me that the Platte has lost 80 percent of its width and 70 percent of its flow to hundreds of diversions—including eight major dams on the North Platte and 20 on the South Platte (the two forks meet upstream at North Platte)—that siphon it off for municipal and agricultural use. Fifty miles of crane staging habitat has been lost to dams and “reclamation”; only the 80 miles from Overton to Chapman remain. In spring flood the Platte used to be two miles wide in places and the floodwaters used to scour the vegetation off the sandbars, but the spring runoff is barely a dribble now. Rowe staffers go out on the bars with tractors and disk the overgrowth, including acres of solid purple loosestrife and phragmites that aren’t even native.
Downstream is the Wood River, where the Crane Trust, founded in l978 with federal money to keep the whooping crane going, has 5,000 acres, and where tens of thousands of greater and Canadian sandhills, mainly—bigger birds in bigger numbers—are already slumbering on the sandbars. At the crack of dawn Melissa and I are in the trust’s main viewing blind, which overlooks a series of large sandbars on which 15,000 or 20,000 close-packed inert sandhills are standing. Their bodies are glazed with a white film of frost. We feel that we are in the presence of something extraordinary, the abundance that was once everywhere. What is left in the bird world that’s anything like this? The pink flamingos on Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, some years in the millions, the South American flamingo species that pack several lakes in the Andes. I am filled with a mixture of awe, nostalgia, gratitude and remorse.
Around the bend there’s another congregation of 40,000 to 80,000 cranes, says a big genial guy in the blind named Brad Mellema, former director of both the Rowe and the Crane Trust nature center and now director of the Grand Island visitors bureau. What do you call these huge assemblages? In the Middle Ages there was a murder of crows, and a sedge or siege of cranes or herons. “We say a flock or a bunch,” Mellema explains.
Paul Johnsgard, the 82-year-old éminence grise of popular writing about the cranes, who has published more than 60 books, calls the staging a “congruence,” punning on the crane family’s Latin name (Gruidae). Melissa suggests “confluence:” the four affiliations converging on the Platte. Congregation, conclave, convention, hoedown, powwow, shindig, gathering of the clans, ornithological Burning Man. Aldo Leopold, who was instrumental in getting the confab on the Platte protected, puts it in his lyrical “Marshland Elegy,” “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
“Our birds come earlier than Rowe’s,” Mellema continues. “These particular ones we know from radio telemetry are from the Gulf Coast and headed for Hudson Bay. The ones at Rowe come from the Texas Panhandle and go up to Fairbanks. Hear the juveniles trilling like cheap gym whistles? Their voices haven’t changed yet. These birds are contented. They’ve been eating for two weeks.” The purr of contentment, which Mellema describes as a chortle and “the sound of the Pleistocene,” never dies down completely during the night, and as the sun hits the birds and brings them to life, the 10,000-bird chorus builds and there is antiphonal quaking back and forth between different parts of the mob. These birds are in no hurry to take off. At 10:30 most of them are still there, but contagious dancing is going on around the edges. Some have moved out into the water, so they can alert the others if an eagle or coyote approaches, Mellema surmises. “There’s always a sentinel. A sandbar is like a hallway in junior high school. Multigenerations come back year after year, and it’s entirely learned. The juveniles play the singles scene.” Archibald says that even if colts separate from their parents here, they return to their natal area rather than being led astray by other cranes. Like elephants, cranes have excellent memories and wear their hearts on their sleeves. Like us, they mate for life but sometimes cheat and divorce. There’s a delightful, moving YouTube video of Archibald dancing with a whooper to stimulate egg production. I know a striking six-foot woman who dances like a crane but has never seen one. We are all on an evolutionary continuum. “I am the walrus,” the Beatles sang, “I am he as you are he as you are me.”
A family of six takes off. Mellema points out how the rhythm of their wingbeats is different from that of geese, which is up and down, one two, one two, same beat, while cranes’ downbeat is slower, twice as long as their upbeat, as they force the air down with their long, powerful wings.
Melissa and I drive from the trust down South Alda Road to the Alda Bridge over the Platte, a magical stretch of road. There is an observation deck at the river with a sign that explains how the Platte Valley formed four immigrant routes, the Oregon, California, Mormon and Bozeman trails. “Nebraska” comes from the Omaha name for the river, Flat Water.
I go down to the river and sit under a cottonwood listening to the raucous, exultant, quaking din downstream of two huge flocks, neither of which is visible. They sound like two baseball stadiums erupting when a ball is hit out of the park, and the roars are answering each other antiphonally. Even in Kearney when I step out of the Best Western, the sky is filled with crane calls. They drown out the whoosh and whine of semis on the Interstate 200 yards away. For two months every year cranes own the soundscape. Archibald says 16 separate vocalizations have been recognized, and they mean different things in different situations and intonations, depending on whether they are made once or several times. So sandhills definitely have a language.