A Cacophony of Cranes

The cabin door stood ajar – the woodstove had overheated the one room once again – and so the sound could slip in with the icy autumn air. I stepped out, wondering what…?

IMG_2649It was the sound of many birds, a migrating flock, but not the honking calls of geese. A great noise floated from the air, from a space I couldn’t locate. The sound was like sandhill cranes. But they’re gone, I thought. The cranes left weeks ago.

Then they came into sight, high overhead. Over a hundred birds, maybe two hundred, flying in large V-formations. Flying with the cross of the crane-shape, neck extended out front, feet reaching out behind. Hundreds of sandhill cranes, all singing, moving southeast through the sky.

Just when the massive flock reached directly overhead, they broke formation and started circling, spiraling, weaving themselves together into a tornado of wings. A rising column of air carried the cranes upward, upward, until one by one by one they drifted into the clouds and mist enveloped them. They disappeared from sight, yet the calling still reached down to the earth, muffled by cloud and space. Then that too slipped away, leaving silence.

Sandhill cranes do migrate across Montana in great flocks, but the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website states that the migration usually occurs across eastern Montana as the birds make their way south. I live in west-central Montana, not east. The cranes should be elsewhere. And I’ve never seen such a thing in half-century of living.

But the sandhill cranes were here, overhead. Perhaps it is an ill-wind blowing them this way, some effect of climate change or pesticides in the beautiful birds’ brains. Perhaps – as I would like to think, as I hope – it is because the wild species do not always do what we predict. Maybe because they know something beyond what humans know about wind currents and upward spirals and floating from north to south – the best way to manage that route.

I will wonder why they came, those birds that probably should have been far from here. Yet I will simply know that, for whatever reason, in their long journey they passed overhead, bringing a moment of unexpected beauty into a chilly autumn afternoon.

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