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The Wild Trumpets
by Damian Fagan

I hear the wild trumpets long before I see them. Theirs is a distinctive rattling call punctuated by deep croaks. The sound lures me back to a time when these birds flew low over the heads of Ice Age mammals or prehistoric Ancestral Puebloans who once roamed these lands.

As they come into sight the communication gets louder, more frequent. “Who’s gotta stop?” seems to be the general communication that ripples through the flock. The wide V-shaped pattern might indicate geese, but the calls, the long straight necks and legs trailing in flight reveal their true identity: Sandhill cranes.

Their passage through the Moab Valley is not a common occurrence. Though they may stop and forage in the Matheson Preserve or an abandoned agricultural field, it seems that their visits are quick ones. The birds are gone long before the “bird on a wire” network goes into effect. Perhaps they are on their way to the bosques along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, where thousands of their kind gather to spend the winter.

I’ve seen rock art panels chipped into stone walls by some ancient birder who, like me, probably stood and stared as the birds passed overhead. The images on stone have long necks but they could easily represent a heron as much as a crane. Though these two birds share an overall long-legged stature, the two are as different as loons are from ducks.

Their similarity resides in their diets, for these are “seefood” eaters: They see food and they eat it. Their diet consists of aquatic invertebrates, crabs, clams, toads, frogs, snakes, and fish. The cranes partake of nuts, berries, leaves, roots, and agricultural or wild grains, whereas the herons are a bit more catholic in their diets. Both may forage in mudflats or shallow waters, but generally only the cranes are found in agricultural fields.

Though both engage in stylized courtship, it is the crane’s version that captures more attention. During courtship, as the birds pair up, they dip and bow to one another, then leap like ballet dancers in the air. Aloft they hold their wings half spread, then bow like Parisian courtiers when they land. Their wing feathers overlap and trail off the bird’s rump like a bustle or knotted sash furthering this “elegant” nature of these mate-for-life birds. Their dawn and dusk duets echo across the open landscape, often inciting a responding chorus from the other nearby pairs.

After the breeding season in which the pair might raise one or two young, the birds depart for their southern wintering homes. In migration, these cranes may travel for nine to ten hours at a time, riding thermals in V-shaped formations of a dozen or more members. With a favorable wind they may travel 500 miles in a day, then rest for several days before continuing their southbound journey.

Robert Ridgeway (1850-1929) the seventeen year-old zoologist on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel wrote about these cranes in the Great Basin in the late 1860s. “Sand-hill Crane was an abundant species in nearly all localities where extensive grassy marshes or wet meadows existed.” The young Ridgeway observed and collected bird specimens during that expedition, before returning to Washington, D.C. to eventually become a leading ornithologist of his time. Yet, his notes on the birds’ abundance would indicate they have not faired well with the progress of time.

These cranes are absent from many of their former breeding grounds in the Great Basin and elsewhere. The conversion of marshes and meadows into agricultural fields or urban settings has forced them out of some of their old haunts. Although populations seem stable, certain subspecies have been included on the list of endangered species.

Though I can not predict the future of these magnificent birds, I can appreciate their beauty in their passage high overhead. As the leaves of autumn cascade to earth, I wish these long-legged flyer well and good speed, hoping to catch a glimpse of them during their springtime, northbound flight.







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