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Jim Wilson

A Study in Gray

          It is equinox, the Midwest’s fickle interface of winter and spring. But this evening we are lucky as the weather graces us with a cool, gentle breeze.
         I join a small group of writers to observe something like a religious pilgrimage in nature. On the bank of the Platte River in south-central Nebraska, we’ve come to witness the spring gathering of sandhill cranes.
          We stand in a plywood blind; its exterior weathered gray like the gnarled cottonwoods nearby. The blind’s burlap façade is a polka-dotting of round, face-sized cutouts that provide portals onto the cranes. Nestled among tall, straw-colored reeds at river’s edge, for a few hours we must appear more plant than animal. Gently clearing throats, muffling coughs, or speaking only in whispers, we stand by to let the cranes take center stage.
          “Look at the sky,” she whispers. “It’s filled with cranes.”
          Even before I see them I hear their song. Though distant, hundreds of chortling calls intertwine in a whirlpool of ambient sound—like numerous choirs continuously overlapping refrains in a vast, a cappella round.
          Some half-mile upstream, long V-formations intersect and twist like a dark waterspout. “A crane-ado,” I think to myself as the gray funnel swells and moves our way. Vs, large and small, join the swirl in an ever-widening vortex of wings, and the very scale of their gathering invites social metaphor.
          They aren’t just flocks in migration. The orderly staging of so many groups of sandhills seems purposeful, like delegations entering a convention. With over half-a-million assembling for a few weeks on so-geographically-short-a-length of river, the central flyway constitutes the world’s largest alliance of cranes. It’s not just natural, it’s political. As a kind of referendum that their portion of the species must stay the course on an evolutionary trajectory requiring cooperation on a vast scale.
          As the vortex approaches it carpets the river with roosting cranes. Dark gray islands appear to rise out of the water as the Platte’s shallow sand bars fill with sandhills. With the sun below the horizon now, the water looses its shine and begins to turn dark gray like the cranes. It seems that the birds have evolved their color for a such time and place. In gray they merge with the tones of their watery roost, when stronger colors would make them vulnerable to predators. Like equinox itself, crane color is a study in balance.
          Large wings allow the cranes to hover and glide like raptors. But cranes are more playful, and some momentarily fix their wings on final approach only to swing back and forth like stunt pilots waving at spectators on the ground.
      How do they choose who they roost with? I wonder, marveling at their orderly demeanor once they land.
          “You see,” she whispers. “They come together like clans. When they circle they even fly counterclockwise, like a pow-wow dance.

          “Clans indeed,” I think to myself and smile. For Tribe nicely models how and why hundreds-of-thousands of cranes can gather here each spring. Like cords in a rope, bonds of family and lineage, adoption and kinship, confederate the sandhills of the central flyway. Gathered as one they are the Crane Nation. The result is not just “Yes we can,” but Yes we are!
      More delegations meet and swirl and the crane-ado sways near our blind now. Hundreds of cranes roost just 200 meters upstream and the flood appears to be sweeping our way.
          Suddenly, several hundred cranes explode in a noisy eruption of flight, moving off upstream. I wonder if our presence has spooked them, and begin to despair that any will actually come to roost near our blind. As agitated cranes shoot off in all directions, several smaller formations race our way.
          Involuntarily I recall Hitchcock’s horror-thriller, The Birds. Cornered in a flimsy wooden box with a perforated burlap façade, we are sitting ducks if they want to take us. Their long black beaks resemble the tip of a spear, and I shudder to think of them aiming at us like large, self-guided projectiles. But the cranes zoom harmlessly overhead, neither homicidal nor suicidal. I realize that not all politics applies to them. They gather for defense, not war.
          The vortex resumes and numerous sandhills begin to alight just across the channel from us. Hundreds of calls swirl directly overhead now, but I don’t see the cranes until just before they land on the bars facing our blind. With binoculars I zoom in on a lone crane patrolling the middle of a bar, well apart from six smaller cranes at the bar’s edge. Soon other, large cranes fill-out the bar, making it look as if the lone crane had been holding the space for family and friends. I don’t know if sandhills separate by kinship, age, or gender, but I can see that not all cranes of feather flock together.
          Our group stands rapt, stuck to the blind’s façade like iron to a magnet. It is almost 9:00 pm now, and all the color before us dissolves into a unity of dark gray. Thousands of cranes fill the Platte now, upstream and down from our blind.
“Can you smell them?” I whisper, and she nods vigorously and smiles as the organic scent of damp feathers permeates the atmosphere.
          The wide, braiding and re-braiding channels of the Platte are more like river delta than river valley. That’s probably why the cranes have long assembled here on their spring migration between disparate subtropic and arctic locales. As they reenact their story each spring, they demonstrate an e pluribus unum that binds them long after they go their many separate ways.
          And what of our small group of writers? Given our divides of race and tribe, of gender and generation, we are hardly birds of a feather. But despite our disparate pathways to the Platte, we draw together for the sake of the cranes. And so we learn to be more crane-like, with some of us likely to return for next year’s fly-in.
          As the gray of evening dissolves into night we finally leave the blind. Exiting quietly and walking away in single file, we try not to disturb the host of roosting sandhills. But the cranes detect our movement and signal caution, bidding us farewell with a collective nasal growl. As we walk on one of our group begins to wave arms in gentle imitation of flight, and others of us follow suit. And so we make our parting gesture one of many happy returns.





To paraphrase Dr. McCoy in Star Trek, “I’m an archaeologist, not a crane biologist!” Still, the grand choreography of sandhills captivates even a non-birder like me. My essay thanks the cranes, but foremost among people who made my encounter possible, let me thank Allison Hedge-Coke of the University of Nebraska, Kearney. For this year’s Honoring the Sandhill Crane Migration Literary Retreat and Festival, Allison organized a group of Native writers and other craniacs that included my wife, LeAnne Howe, the “She” in my essay. To Allison, LeAnne, Linda, Sherwin, Laura, Fredy, and Christina, thank you kindly for opening your circle to me at equinox. Thanks also to kind hosts at the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, for allowing writers to overnight and exchange with scientists at their research center. Here’s to a sandhill-inspired, art/science symbiosis on the Platte for plenty of years come.