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Grus

by D.A. Rintoul

"The unison call is a dramatic duet between the male and female of a mated crane pair. It is used as a territorial threat to neighboring pairs… During this display, the calls of the male are completely different from, although synchronized with, the call of the female." - Bernhard Wessling.

It was the eyes that gave her away. There was nothing there, no spark, no light at all. They stared flatly at me when I asked her, only a week or so after she returned from sabbatical, what was wrong. I expected her to say that she was having trouble readjusting to academic life and teaching, or a home with me and all three kids after a year away with only our daughter, or anything else. But her eyes told me that the answer would be none of the above.

"I miss Tim", she blurted and looked away. "I don't want to be married to you; I want to be back with Tim". Tim was a graduate student in the lab where she had spent her sabbatical, and I knew then that she had betrayed the promises we made to each other before she left. But those were just empty words; her eyes spoke the truth now. Everything I thought I knew was wrong. But how could it be this way? We had two tenure-track (and now tenured) jobs, a blended family with my two kids from a previous marriage and a lovely four year-old daughter of our own. Aren't those things important too? Not very important, it seems. My words fell into a chasm of indifference. Her eyes told me they had no chance of reaching her. She was gone, and the distance was already vast.

Where would I go? Surely I was not meant to follow, but I didn't want to even imagine how much my life would be changing, and how soon. I also had some other things on my mind, even though everything else seemed trivial right then. That summer I had spent much time, while waiting for her and Ellen to return from sabbatical, preparing a presentation that would begin to consume more and more of my time and thoughts. The Wildlife and Parks Commission of the State of Kansas had proposed to establish a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes, and the fight was on to keep this from becoming real. Birdwatching and conservation organizations across the state organized to beat back this initiative, as we had done before, but this time our prospects were mighty slim. The decision would be made by the Wildlife and Parks commissioners, and a quick glance at the resumes of those worthies revealed that the crane-hunting proponents had the numbers on their side. Nevertheless, the battle lines were being drawn in my home territory, and I had been drawn along as well.

Half a million Sandhill Cranes fly across Kansas twice a year. These ancient, wary birds are hunted in many states and provinces; among the states in the Central Flyway, only Kansas and Nebraska prohibited crane hunting. There were good reasons why Nebraska could maintain this ban; the state's economy is buttressed each spring by growing numbers of crane-watchers, who flock to the Platte River to view this last and greatest migration spectacle on the continent. Half a million cranes, crammed into only 60 relict miles of river and wet meadow and corn field, feeding and fattening and flirting with their mates as they prepare for the final push north. The migration staging area for this species, even though sorely diminished from its historic breadth, attracts nature lovers from across the globe. They come despite the fact that March in Nebraska can be a wretched experience. Cranes live year-round on the edge of winter, and a March morning in Nebraska is often on the other side of that edge, with an Alberta Clipper blasting you hard, back into winter itself. But crane-watchers come, and spend, and spread the gospel to others. Nebraskans didn't need to mar their image as a crane haven by opening a hunting season for the species. Kansas was a different story. We didn't make money from crane tourism, and our hunters apparently needed another species to stalk, bag, and brag about.

Although I am a biologist, I'm not an ornithologist, or even an ecologist. Nevertheless I had volunteered to make a presentation to the Commissioners at their August meeting, when they would vote on establishment (or not) of a fall hunting season for Sandhill Cranes. I had been active with the local and state Audubon organizations, I was interested in birds and migrations, and I had a passion for cranes. So I had spent the summer learning about cranes from the experts, visiting them or talking to them on the phone, hoping to learn enough to dissuade the Commissioners from adding this species to the list of our fellow travelers whom Kansans could legally kill. And I learned enough to be able to stay away from any purely emotional or aesthetic arguments, even though my willingness to join this battle had its roots at that level.

Frankly there were numerous scientific reasons to oppose hunting of this species, not the least of which was an appalling lack of data about subpopulations and recruitment. This paucity of available data, coupled with the fact that these birds don't replace themselves until they are 9 or 10 years old, didn't seem to support a hunting season. It was clearly only meant to satisfy a few hunters demanding another chance to kill another species. Furthermore the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock of the endangered Whooping Crane comes through Kansas twice a year as well. Although the peak migration times for these two crane species were different, there was enough overlap of the end of the Whooper migration with the start of a proposed Sandhill hunting season to generate some concern. A hunter could make a mistake and "harvest" a Whooping Crane (in fact, three Whoopers were shot in Kansas in 2004; this concern proved to be more than an idle speculation). It seemed possible (but not likely) that the Commissioners could be convinced on the basis of science and logic, and that was my hope. A good presentation at the August meeting of the KDWP Commission could make a difference. I had convinced myself of that, at least. Now the meeting was a week away, and my universe was being disassembled from an entirely unexpected direction. I had to go on; I had spent too much time and learned too much to stop now. But my world was spinning off its axis. I couldn't imagine putting energy into anything else except trying to put it back on the pins, even though the eyes told me it was a waste of effort.

The next few days were hallucinations. Too many tears, not enough sleep, and no way to find a point where I didn't feel like my legs had been shorn off under me. There were long discussions about what we should do or could do, but all of them ended in the same blank and un-navigable space. Clearly she felt bad about what she wanted to do, but not bad enough to turn back. Just as clearly, I was well behind her in this discussion, flailing to catch up, but only getting dizzy from the effort. That process would continue until I finally did catch up, many months later. But I didn't get there that week, and I couldn't yet imagine that I ever would. The week went by, and then I had to concentrate on cranes, and hunting, and data again.

The meeting was in El Dorado, about 100 miles away, and I arrived early at the hotel/conference center, hoping to find friends who could talk to me about something else, anything else. I had to reignite the fire, if only for this evening. I had to make a convincing case, even though, deep down, we all knew it was pretty hopeless. Hope was a hard thing to find, especially for me that day, but without it, I couldn't imagine going on at all. I let the conversation reel me in, and the strategizing gossip papered over some of the chasms in my shattered and unpatched psyche. I chatted with the Flyway representative from the Denver US Fish and Wildlife Service office. After several phone conversations with him that summer, I knew that he would not be on our side, but he would also stick to the scientific facts. I would speak before him, and I hoped (what a word!) that if we both stuck to the facts, the commissioners might be persuaded to put off a decision about hunting until we had a lot more facts. Wildlife management is not always a data-driven enterprise, but one could hope (again!) that the absence of sufficient data would allow the commissioners some room to be cautious, even if it disappointed their first constituency, the would-be crane hunters. Hope crept in, but only a trickle.

As the evening unfolded, however, so did the feeling that some Kansans would soon be hunting cranes. Several hunters spoke, justifying crane hunting simply because "our grandfathers hunted cranes, and we should be allowed to do the same". These rustic aphorisms were met with nods of approval by most commissioners, including the chairman. Several people opposed to crane hunting also spoke, testifying about the grandeur of the species, the thrill of hearing a flock of cranes high in a spring-blue sky, and knowing it as the sound of spring arriving. Monogamous, dedicated to family, almost human-like; all of these traits were mentioned by one speaker or another. Indeed, the Inuit believe that Sandhill Cranes are the souls of humans, seeking to gain human form again. Many other cultures grant cranes similar human and even spiritual qualities. One speaker even broke some ground for me, pointing out the cranes' long generation times and slow recruitment compared to ducks and geese. These comments elicited only stony silence, if not outright dismissal. The chairman was anxious to get to the voting, and comments from the floor were just speed bumps on his predestined path. He, as well as many others in the room, simply wanted to see cranes down the barrel of a gun. That was his aesthetic, and he was not alone.

As my talk unfolded, and the emotional arguments gave way to the data-driven ones, the commissioners paid slightly more attention. But it was clear that they were just waiting for the USFWS representative to tell them that my interpretation of the data was flawed or that I had overlooked something that would make it possible for them to vote yes on a crane hunting season. They politely asked a couple of questions, as did the USFWS rep and a couple of university biologists. They didn't really listen to the answers, I'm sure. Then the chairman cut off questions from the audience so that the USFWS rep could tell them what they wanted to hear.

He didn't disappoint them, or the hunters in the crowd. His presentation used the same data as mine, vindicating my certainty that I hadn't overlooked anything, even though I was strictly an amateur in terms of wildlife biology and management recommendations. His interpretation was different, of course, because he glossed over the gaps in the data that I had highlighted. In the end, as predicted, he recommended the establishment of a new hunting season in Kansas. The commissioners were visibly relieved. He was the expert, and he had said what they wanted to hear. The chairman allowed one or two questions from the audience, but when I stood up to ask a question about the gaps in the data, he sat me down, pointing out that I had already had a chance to make my point.

That was more than enough; my reservoir of hope ran dry at that exact moment. Even though two more speakers were scheduled before the vote, I knew I didn't need to stay around to hear the outcome. I had a two-hour drive home, to face a world that was collapsing rapidly, and I simply didn't have the stamina to be in that room, arguing against atavistic blood lust, for even a second longer. I knew I had to face some dreadful realities back home, but that room was even more dreadful at that moment. I exited without any farewells, and hit the road, exhausted and defeated.

In some ways that drive, late at night through the heart of the Flint Hills of Kansas, was spectacular, almost surreal. It was the time of the Perseid meteor showers; I saw several flaming, dying chunks of Comet Swift-Tuttle blaze across that gorgeous landscape. Patches of ground fog lay across the swales, and at times my car seemed to be navigating atop a pool of milk, wheels in the opaque mist and headlights above. A Great Horned Owl appeared suddenly from one of the milk pools, leaping into flight from the side of the road and eddying across the boundary between fog and sky. It flapped urgently away, across the prairie, and disappeared. A more mystical person might have found some symbolism in his ghostly flickering from nothing to being and back out again. But my mind wasn't into mysticism, or beauty; I was moving from an already-realized disappointment into an impending full-fledged disaster.

The weeks and months ahead moved us inexorably toward the fate predicted by her eyes that day. Perfunctory counseling allowed the time and opportunity for me to understand the thinking of someone who was getting away as quickly as possible. Since we both worked in the same department and in similar areas of biological research on campus, however, I found very little space available for retreat into healing. But time worked, eventually, and when I decided to abandon our overlapping research, it worked even better. Switching your research focus in mid-career is not brilliant, but it was something that I had to do, simply to find the space that couldn't be found at work or as a single parent for three innocent kids.

I had done some work on fat metabolism in hibernators, and decided to move down that avenue, away from the subcellular and biophysical work that overlapped with hers. But I needed to find an independent project, since all of that work was done in collaboration with the lab of a colleague I had known since graduate school. Since So I was delighted to hear about a new and expansive research project on Sandhill Cranes. At the time fat metabolism in migrant birds, particularly cranes, was an area with lots of unanswered questions; perhaps my research credentials in mammalian fat metabolism would open a door into a new research project on avian fat metabolism. Interestingly, cranes had not been the subject of much research in recent years, but the uproar accompanying the fight over a crane season in Kansas had resonated with someone, and the feds were funding this grand project to study cranes on the staging grounds in Nebraska. Something good had come from that battle, and I determined to make something better of it for myself, if possible.

The project was a multi-year effort to repeat and extend some studies done in the 1970's, where cranes were monitored for weight gain, diet, land usage patterns, and other parameters. In addition some cranes would be fitted with transmitters that reported to a global satellite system, allowing the researchers to track birds in real time, from the staging area, to the breeding grounds, back south to the wintering grounds, and, with luck, back up to Nebraska the next spring. The data gaps we had identified would be filling in, at least in part, and I wanted to be involved. So I wrote to the principal investigator for details, hoping to be able to plan some additional research that would allow me to contribute knowledge, as well as move even further away in my research, one of the few spaces allowed by my circumstances.

Part of the project, as was the case in the 1970's, involved taking (killing) two cranes a day throughout the 6-week staging period from late February to early April. Stomach contents, body weights, and fat content would be analyzed to see if the birds were still gaining weight at the rates seen in the 1970's. There was cause for concern on that front, since the Snow Goose population had exploded in the interim, and these geese competed strongly for the waste grain and other resources that the cranes needed as they fattened up for the next leg north. This was a wonderful opportunity; if I could obtain funding I would be able to get small fat samples from these birds and test a couple of hypotheses that I had developed, based on results seen in other smaller birds who migrated lesser distances.

I got the funding, along with a collaborative agreement with the principal investigator, and headed up to Nebraska in February to train the technicians in exactly how to obtain and preserve the small samples of crane fat that I needed to test these hypotheses. This would be a unique sample set, and I was already speculating about how to use it for additional unique experiments and measurements. Fat is a reservoir for organic pesticides in birds; do Sandhill Cranes have a high pesticide load from their wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, and even Old Mexico? I needed to learn how to analyze samples for pesticides and residues; that would be yet another way out of the space I was confined to.

The sight of a recently killed Sandhill Crane, waiting for me on a table in a cold garage/lab in Nebraska, quickly returned me to earthly thoughts. These birds, awkwardly graceful in life, had an elegance and power which, even in the sprawled repose of death, was palpable and arresting. This bird would dance no more. But I hoped that the knowledge gained from its death would allow future crane generations to dance on these fields, bringing delight to my children and grandchildren if they migrated to Nebraska, as I did, in future springs. I showed the technician how much fat I needed, how to store it, and marveled at the matter-of-factness of his skill in accommodating this additional sample request and effort. I made arrangements to come back later in the spring to pick up the first batch of samples, and discreetly inquired if I would be able to assist in the capture of cranes and the attachment of the precious satellite transmitters. I was delighted to hear that I would be welcome to help out; this would be an opportunity to learn more about these birds, hands-on, and alive!

Three weeks later I was back on the road, headed to Nebraska with my friend Jim, who practically demanded to be included once he heard that there was a chance to work with live Sandhill Cranes. Jim was recently widowed, a Vietnam vet working as a civilian for the Army, and a birding buddy for many years. He had a yen for road trips, and was definitely up for this one. Spring was advancing, and flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds were on the northern front. We watched one spectacular cloud of birds flowing like a braided avian river across the cloudy sky, a flow of migratory energy that seemed to stretch across the entire continent. Cedar trees in a feedlot windbreak hosted more blackbirds, emitting them like puffs of smoke into the wind, where they dissipated and reformed before falling back down into the next cedar or the next stubble field. All that restless energy fed us as well, hurtling north on the wind, wondering what awaited us along the Platte.

We made our rendezvous with the crane crew near dawn the next day and followed them to a site well north of the river, just west of Kearney. On the previous afternoon these biologists had set up a rocket net, which basically consisted of a pair of small rocket-shaped projectiles with a sturdy net attached to each one. The net was folded like an accordion and buried under a light layer of soil and grass; the rockets were angled low and slightly outward. When birds were in the target area, in front of the net and between the rockets, you could turn a switch, firing the rockets, and deploying the net out and over the unsuspecting (but now terrified) birds. Then you had a flock of trapped and angry cranes, one of which you needed to measure, band, and fit with a satellite transmitter. The net was ready, the rockets were armed. All we had to do was set some decoys to attract cranes, flocks of which were already aloft and passing over us in the early morning hours.

This turned out to be an interesting exercise in deception. Cranes are very wary birds, and won't come down from the sky to socialize with just any old group of decoys. In fact, these weren't even decoys; they were taxidermy mounts of deceased Sandhill Cranes, on steel stakes that mimicked crane legs. But even that wasn't the end of the deception. They were mounted in various positions, some with heads up in an alert stance, some in a head-down feeding posture. There were adults and juveniles in the mix as well, and Dan, the head tech, told us that the decoy spread had to be just right, with a good mix of postures and ages, to attract cranes down to this postage-stamp sized chunk of prairie in front of the net. He had been doing this for a while, and quickly directed us in the arrangement and spacing of the steel-toed birds, before pronouncing it good and ready. We moved off, hiding out of sight from the flocks of cranes flying overhead, all seeking food and safe companionship. Dan also stayed out of sight a bit closer to the net, with the firing mechanism, so that he could deploy the rocket net at the right instant. We proceeded to wait.

Large and small flocks of cranes flew by, and some circled for a second look, but none ventured down to visit our faux family groups of stuffed and mounted cranes. A splendid cock pheasant did wander in front of the net, and we wondered if Dan would get bored and use that big net to catch a pheasant, but he showed some restraint. Eventually a group of about 6 cranes landed nearby, but never really got close enough to the net to convince Dan that he should launch the rockets. We wanted about 12-16 birds in the target area, and we wouldn't get them here.

After about 90 disappointing minutes of watching and waiting, we decided to move on, uprooting the decoys but leaving the unfired rocket net for another day. Another net was set up near a small slough further west, near Elm Creek. This was just about the western edge of the Platte River valley currently used by the cranes. That meant that it was likely that all the cranes would be the Lesser Sandhill Cranes, the birds that migrate from the Texas Panhandle to the far western Arctic edge of the western hemisphere. Dan needed to get transmitters on some of these birds; sufficient numbers had already been attached to Greater Sandhill Cranes. So Lessers were our target today. Jim and I fervently hoped that this second site would attract some cranes; we had to leave the next day and might not ever get this chance again.

We went through the same process of setting out the decoys, in a slightly different arrangement this time just in case our previous arrangement had somehow evoked crane suspicions. Then we backed off and hid again. Jim and I hunkered down in a hedgerow about 100 yards above the decoy spread; Dan was in his pickup down below us where he had a good view of the target area. We waited. Lines of birds, carving runic letters in the cloudless sky, were moving up from the river, about 2 miles to the south. They seemed tempted; several groups circled our silent and sessile flock, but then moved on.

Finally a small flock of about 20 cranes came parachuting down, gliding into the wind with their landing gear down, and hit the ground near our decoy spread. We watched breathlessly as they meandered, ever so slowly, toward the decoys. One, then two, then a dozen or so seemed to be in the target area. Why didn't Dan pull the trigger? When he finally did launch the rockets, it startled us and the cranes into action. When the smoke cleared we could see about a few flying off in a panic. But there were many cranes under the net, flattened to the ground by the heavy webbing, looking up at the sturdy and unpanicked decoys. Success! We rushed down to the net.

Immediately there was a problem. One of the birds had been at the edge of the target area, not under the net, and had been hit by the south rocket itself. The impact seemed to have broken both of his legs. He couldn't get off the ground, but was flapping powerfully away from the net and across the slough. Dan's pickup roared into sight, and he jumped out, grabbed a double-barreled shotgun from under the seat, and brought the gun to his shoulder in an instant. I was amazed that he would shoot at a bird this close to an interstate carrying a few thousand crane-watching tourists, but there was really no other choice. A crippled bird would attract a lot more attention than a shotgun blast out here. Blam! Missed! Blam! Missed again! The cranes under the net hissed and flapped even more frantically with each blast. I would never have imagined that this ace technician, who had probably been a hunter since the age of 7, could miss a large bird, twice, at this point-blank range. No time for pondering that irony, however. He really had missed, with both shots, and now we really had a problem. We needed to hurry down to the net, to handle and calm those birds before they injured themselves or each other; that crippled bird was not the only thing that needed our attention.

Dan ordered Jim and the others to get to the net and start untangling birds, and ordered me to get that crippled bird and kill it. With my bare hands? Why me? I had fought hard against the killing of cranes in Kansas; I felt no urge to kill one myself. Immediately I wondered how many of the hunters at that meeting would believe that I was about to kill one with only my hands. You'd have to jump a few branches past their grandfathers to find someone on the family tree who'd done that. I vaulted over the slough and chased down the crippled crane. Apparently the shotgun blasts had not missed entirely, or he was just tiring from the effort and the injuries; his forward progress had slowed down considerably. But there was still plenty of fight in him; he lunged at me as I tackled him, and I barely avoided getting speared by that dagger of a beak. Dan had warned us earlier that a crane's legs were the strongest part, and that getting kicked by a crane would be worse than getting speared by the bill, but the bill still looked pretty vicious to me. I grabbed it from behind and got my hands around its neck, needing to dispatch it before it damaged itself, or me, any further. The bird looked at me, angry and hurt, but with and indomitable living fire in that gold eye that seemed to come from another place than this. Still, I had to kill it; it would not survive those injuries, and killing it now would mean that some other bird would be spared today. His body, injuries and all, could still count as one of the two sacrificed birds needed every day of this 6-week season.

When I was young and staying on my uncle's Western Kansas farm, I had wrung the necks of the chickens destined to be our dinner. So I had a good idea of what I needed to do. I just hoped it wouldn't take long. Wrapping my hands around the slim gray neck, I throttled the bird, at first trying to avoid looking it in the eye. That proved impossible; I recalled Aldo Leopold's account of watching the "fierce green fire" die in the eyes of a wolf he gunned down, and I looked into the eye of that bird. The golden eye looked back, fiery indeed, and then the fire slowly flickered out as the bird expired. I literally felt something passing and the head sagged, lifeless, from my hands. But I had no time to reflect, no time to mourn; I had to drag the carcass back to the truck and get to work with the rest, handling birds who were still alive, panicked and feisty.

We worked to get the 16 birds from the net, one by one, and stuffed them head first into burlap bags, with only their tarsi and toes sticking out. We had to bag all of the birds, keep them calm, and release them at the same time, even though we were only going to put a transmitter on one bird. Since cranes travel in family groups to Nebraska each spring, typically two adults and last year's youngster, we didn't want to break those familial bonds by releasing an adult without freeing its partner, or its offspring, at the same time. A liberated bird would want to get pretty far away from this chaotic scene, and might not wait for other family members. So we had 15 birds to calm down, and one bird to concentrate on. Dan chose an adult bird for the transmitter. Blood was drawn, measurements were taken, and the $3000 transmitter was attached securely to the bird's leg. Later we found out that this was a female

Lesser Sandhill Crane, based on analysis of DNA from the blood sample and those measurements of centimeters and grams. Similar analyses of the lifeless bird in the truck bed would prove it to be a male. The female would haul that 30 gram transmitter from Elm Creek to Siberia, across the International Date Line, living in tomorrow for much of the summer. She was a gorgeous and spirited bird; we all hoped that her mate was not the broken carcass that I tossed into the bed of a pickup truck.

Once that bird was tagged, we prepared to release her and the rest of the small flock who had been unfortunate enough to be under our net. Each of us took two or three cranes, burlap-bound and hissing like snakes, under our arms. We gathered our squirming noisy baggage a short distance away from the decoys, still standing unperturbed under the heavy rocket net. Dan was right, those legs were strong. If both birds kicked at the ground at the same time, they could raise me up a few inches, and I'm not exactly a small guy. Dan gave the signal, and we all took the bags off our birds and let them free. Bugling and cackling, they vaulted into the wind, wasting no time getting back into their domain, far away from their mundane captors. The resonant biirrrrt calls of the adults mixed with the higher-pitched squeaks of the juveniles as the families were reunited. They swiftly formed several groups of three, a couple of groups of two. One pair climbed, and then circled us twice, calling urgently, before heading north. I wondered if that group was missing a member, and if they saw that crumpled body in the bed of the truck. No way to know that, ever. I only knew that a family was going on with two instead of three, and I understood that. Perfectly.

Grus" was originally published in Platte Valley Review (On-line edition), Vol. 33, Winter 2011-12. It is reprinted here by permission of the author.


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