For the Birds Radio Program: Evening Cranes

Original Air Date: April 14, 1995

Today Laura Erickson explains how Sandhill Cranes can provide valuable income tax savings. 4:49

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When you drive a long distance on a birding trip, say to Nebraska to watch migrating Sandhill Cranes, it’s always a good idea to write an article or radio script or two about it so you can write off the cost of the trip as a legitimate deductible expense.

The National Audubon Society maintains the Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary along the Platte River, and operates two observation blinds. Each is built to accommodate 45 people, and looks like a long, dark, wooden hallway with dozens of rectangular holes cut in the side with sliding panels that open to let the wind and rain in along with the sight of cranes.

There were 70-degree temperatures and balmy skies early in March, but the weekend I came turned out to be the worst one of the month. Temperatures plummeted below freezing, and sleet and snow were the order of the day. 45 of the 90 people scheduled for the Sunday night trip chickened out, but the half of us who showed up at a Texaco station off I-80 at 5 pm in the icy rain followed the leader through the storm to the sanctuary. Most weren’t dressed for bad weather, and by the time we hiked from the parking lot through open prairie to the blind, they were soaked and frozen. Me, I’m a Minnesotan. I wore a down jacket, pack boots, long underwear under lined pants under snowmobile pants, wool hat, and heavy poncho. Truth to tell, I wasn’t all that warm myself, but the whole point of being from Minnesota is to pretend you’re comfortable no matter what.

Cranes must have originated in Minnesota, too. They began trickling in soon after we arrived, not one griping about the weather. The rain stopped as they were first flying in, but the wind picked up, roaring straight into our open windows. Standing still in a freezing blind for 3 hours might make me feel a little cranky, but not with this vision of cranes bugling and flying in from every direction to a raucous after-dinner party.

The wind roared at 40 mph, with gusts to 60. Cranes weigh only about 7 pounds, which doesn’t give them much muscle to control their 6-foot wingspan. To land, they have to delicately maneuver their wings to come down into the wind while trying to avoid hitting any of the thousands of other cranes coming in, and they didn’t have any air traffic controllers to help. The slightest error with their wing flaps and the wind plucked them up again, so there were a lot of false landings and start overs as they struggled against the gale.

Bazillions of cranes floated everywhere, but the pairs were easy to pick out—each couple was in perfect sync, their wings beating as one. They’d work their way down, sometimes taking four or five false starts before at long last touching the ground. THey’d shake out their feathers and look at each other in relief, but trouble is, when two cranes in love look at each other, something whispers to them…Gotta dance!…and without even thinking, they raise their necks and open their wings in a joyous burst of affection. The moment their wings opened, the wind plucked them right back up into the sky again. If only one was pulled up, its mate invariably joined it so as not to be left behind. This is amazingly stupid or touchingly romantic, depending on your point of view.

It took well over an hour for the cranes to gather. I could have stayed in the blind another hour, watching and listening and freezing, but most of the people found shivering too unpleasant, so the guide led us away from the river as evening settled into night. The cranes’ voices were growing hushed as they started their good-nights, like 10,000 Waltons all talking at once. “Good night, John-Boy.” “Good night, Mama, ” their comfortable sweet voices quieting with the fading light. The cranes will be back on the Platte next year, and I’ll be back to enjoy them, just in time to take another deduction at tax time.