I arrived in the Gila River valley in New Mexico in mid-September to stay at a friend’s property for a few months. Shortly afterwards, migrating Sandhill Cranes began showing up too. I heard them before I saw them, and my first reaction was, “What the heck is that?”
If you haven’t heard the calls of a Sandhill Crane before, you might not immediately identify them as coming from birds. They have been variously described as “loud, rattling bugle calls,” a “deep chesty squawk” and “kar-r-r-r- o-o-o.” I’ll take a stab at the challenge and offer: “a moody trilling trumpet.”
These helped jog my memory as I was writing this piece (since the cranes here don’t vocalize on command) but they all seriously lack compared to the real thing. They might capture the sound but not the spirit.
The first time a group of them flew overhead, I couldn’t help but to stop and stare in awe. Their silhouettes were certainly striking—with necks extended forward and legs stretched out behind—but it was their voices that really took my breath away. I will offer the words “haunting,” “otherworldly” and “preternatural,” though they all fall short. I felt like I was hearing the echoes of dinosaurs (and given birds’ evolutionary heritage, I guess I literally was).
But of course there is nothing alien about these creatures or their noises. It is I, raised in cities by a dominator culture, who doesn’t belong here, or rather, who doesn’t know my place, or how to find it. Such is the tragic estrangement of Western Civ.
Sandhill Cranes are one of the oldest species of bird in the world. Fossil records go back at least 2.5 million years as such things are conservatively considered. Suggestive but indeterminate are other fossils aged 10 million years. At a mere 200-250,000 years, our species is at most a tenth as old. As I gazed skyward at them, I was truly beholding elders.
Known scientifically as Grus canadensis or Antigone canadensis, the Sandhill Crane is up to 4 1/2 feet tall with a wingspan between 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 feet. Adults are grey to tawny with darker wingtips and a characteristic red marking on the top of their head. They typically live 20-30 years, though the oldest recorded was over 36.
Courtship between adults famously includes dancing [see video], which I was fortunate to witness as a young lad one year in Nebraska, where huge flocks pass through the Sandhills in the Spring. Mating couples pair up for life and raise their young together. After 9-10 months, juveniles leave their parents and live in groups of other single birds until they reach sexual maturity after their second year.
The natural habitat of Sandhills Cranes—whether in the north in summer for breeding or the south for overwintering—are wetlands, including marshes, lakesides and riparian areas. Unfortunately for the Sandhill Crane—and for countless other species, avian, amphibian, arthropodic, etc.—these zones are also prime farmland. Conversion to agriculture entails draining, diking and damming, all of which damage or destroy these ecosystems. So of course, Sandhill Cranes and their neighbors are fewer in number now than before the European invasion of this hemisphere.
Indeed, due to habitat loss and widespread hunting, Sandhill Cranes were in danger of extinction in the early 20th Century. The Migratory Bird Act of 1916 is credited with saving them and others. (And yes, like so much other conservation legislation, it is under attack from the Trump administration. It’s hard to keep up with all his assaults on the environment.)
The area where I am staying is an example of historic habitat impacted by agriculture.
From where I sit, the Gila River’s network of tributaries all start less than 50 miles away as the crow (or the crane) flies, up in the Black Range. As is the case across the continent, the colonial names for this range—”Devil’s Mountains” and “Sierra Diablo”—refer to their original habitation by Native American tribes, including the Chiricahua Apache. (Places designated with the offensive term “squaw” were often sites where traditional food and medicines were gathered by indigenous women.) Other people lived in the area in still older times, as evidenced by the Gila Cliff Dwellings, by which the Western Fork of the Gila River flows.
In the valley here, irrigation canals run roughly parallel to the river proper at distances of a few hundred yards, up to half a mile. The area between is pasture for cows, where the land was long since turned under and planted with non-native forage. Originally, the watercourse would have snaked and meandered across these lowlands, but now much of it is channelized. It’s true that the Sandhill Cranes and other birds still travel to this area every year, but their lives are certainly not the same.
Ranching activities are common throughout the western United States, but it turns out there’s a twist to the story in this part of the Gila River valley. According to a University of Arizona professor who used to live in the area, the cattle operations here are owned by a mining company in nearby Silver City in order to retain the water rights. The mining operation itself produces only a trickle and would have shuttered years ago except that once they close, they are responsible under federal law for clean-up, which would incur significant expenses they want to avoid for as long as possible.
That is, the Sandhill Crane habitat out my window is kept in a constantly impacted state so that capitalists thirty miles away—on the other side of the Continental Divide—can avoid paying for their mess. How many stories like this are there across the nation? Far more than we know or even suspect, I’m sure.
As a side note, this is what a “grass-fed” beef operation looks like. That label enjoys a far more positive rep than it deserves and this valley is not by any means the only place where the cost is habitat destruction, pollution and water wastage. If we were serious about protecting wildlife and conserving resources in areas not naturally suited to cows and sheep, we would cease all ranching west of the Mississippi. A good first step would be ending the federal subsidies that prop up the industry.
Hunting Sandhill Cranes is legal in New Mexico, with permits and limits. (If you’re curious, you can read an account of a hunt here.) However, this is a minor threat to the species compared to the persistence of agriculture.
Climate change is expected to affect Sandhill Cranes far more. The Audubon Society’s page for the bird features an interactive map of the bird’s range (both summer and winter) that illustrates the estimated effects of climate change for temperature rises of 1.5, 2.0 and 3.0 °C. Nobody should be surprised if the actual affects turn out to be more drastic or sooner than expected, though.
As Autumn has settled in here, I’ve shut the windows and doors more often, which has sadly cut off the sounds of the wildlife. But when I step outside, more often than not I hear the call of the cranes from the direction of the river, where towering Cottonwoods are now turning yellow.
Every time, I experience a thrill somewhere inside. Their ancient voice speaks from a perspective beyond my comprehension and I can hear that I, human, am young; ultimately, no less a part of the Great Mystery than everything else, but undoubtedly in need of the reminder.