When I came to Nebraska, I came for cranes, Sandhills, primarily. The Platte River is the ultimate source of staging grounds for the Sandhill crane. For eons cranes have come to rest, mate, feed, and prepare for the northward journeys to nesting grounds across northern North America and into Siberia. For perhaps 45 to 60 million years these cranes have existed. The flyway covers what was once the pathway of the Inland Sea. The Platte River is new to cranes in the longevity experienced as a species. Existing 14,000 years, maybe less, the Platte allows the perfect stopover for the annual grand council of cranes as the narrows of the hourglass flyway figure memory of the Inland Sea and holding memory of lineal teachings for the long stretch of their Northern Occidental Hemispheric (and beyond) span. This concentration, in the annual migration, the epicenter, if you will, comes to an apex in a 30-mile stretch of the 80-mile staging area on the Platte roughly from mid-February to mid-April every calendar sweep for as long as memory exists in these parts. Here, I believed, would be the best place to fixate upon cranes and their migration, and I was incredibly intrigued.
For years along the Platte, during the migration epicenter, I have gathered together Indigenous people (including writers and students), and also writers of other ethnicities whose work and lives (and cultures) are saturated with concerns of living, migration, waterways. I have gathered people with influences and impressions of eons of human witnessing and coexistence with cranes and other migrating species, or who live along waterways and have not experienced a grand council, who navigate such as this from an urban landscape. In this shared work, we renew ourselves in peaceful retreat while joining each other to mark the days with field experience and information. We find ways to rekindle our creative fires and to seek deeper understandings of our surrounding companions in nature who, like us, come together in important ways for significant events that allow us to exist and coexist and to survive and replenish, just as the cranes do here.
Swooping collectively, like some sky swimming flexion fish, chortling, calling, call and response localizing, their recognizable concerted flutter comforts me to a deep degree of tangible calm. The crane has become for me a muse unequaled in the sense of community building and in intentionality honed purposing for the greater reasons we, as writers, and as human beings, need come together on regular occasion to flex our commonalities while equalizing differences for the individual, and in the yet collective work we do. Their movement, motion, and meaningful agreement prove testimony to renewal and survival of a species in a world awry with millennia of change.
Here, we collectively find ourselves every spring in the midst of the migration of the Sandhill and seven to ten million other birds who migrate along with the cranes, almost invisibly to the unaware. The size and eruption of the Sandhill upon the Savannah-like Sandhill country of Nebraska is so overwhelming—the cranes allow guardianship of the other species simply by being the main attraction for predator and primate. In this case, human: the very predator who nearly exterminated the Sandhills not so long ago. Luckily, Nebraska protected the Platte just in time for the cranes to rekindle themselves and return to over a half-million in a simple set of decades. The five breeding pair left from the extermination period had continued to migrate, and subsequent Sandhills do indeed continue to migrate, but is their migration an instinctual thing?Turtles born in sand, breathing for the first time away from any adult, cross the ocean in search of the place they must meet, regardless of danger or leadership, on their own. They are compelled to and do so successfully, for the most part. If migration has an instinctual value, perhaps the turtle is the barometer for how this occurrence is evident.
Yet, if you remove a crane embryo from its kind, take the egg and hatch it elsewhere, the chick fails to fly where his lineage journeys. No, it has no idea where to go and will not leave without an adult leader teaching it to do so. If you interrupt the annual journey in a specific place, repeatedly or with such impact that stress occurs, the parents (of any subsequent chicks) who have witnessed the event, or adolescents with them at the time who then parent, often do not return to the place of injury and instead find a nearby place that will suit a seasonal need.
Karine Gil’s work at the Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust and in the field following tagged cranes for four years has verified what Indigenous oratory has asserted, that the families of cranes are conditioned by their parents to know when to travel and where to go along their up to 10,000-mile stretch of seeking a place to feed, nest, raise young chicks, and return to warmer wintering ground every single year of their 30-some-year lives. The teachings create the united journeys and the learned behavior is shared time and time again to make the journey successful and to allow the cranes to come together for this significant shared work.So what is migration? What makes an animal, in this case bird, move seasonally on an annual basis to run its yearly cycle and return to where it began? What shift causes the change to occur and why is this normal behavior for some of our fellow inhabitants on the planet?
For the crane, the initial migration is the first teaching as a young bird leaving its place of birth and heading south before the approach of winter in the arctic and lower northern regions. Smaller family groups and some extended kinship begin to join together and initiate the journey, stopping from time to time along the way to rest and learn the places they will gather in full concentration before the beginning of spring. Along the way, the path they will seek to return to is lain out with instruction, quite clearly, complete with body language, vocalizations, and demonstrative effort of their parents and other adult birds. The young figure out along the way what is acceptable and expected, or not. The likelihood of both of the normal two-egg clutch surviving all the way to their first wintering ground is mixed and one chick may be gone before they ever leave the nest. The occasional surviving twins follow sets of monogamous parents across the skies and gather and group with other cranes along the way, or depart from larger sets, depending upon many conditions. Just as the more often single surviving chick would.
Once the cranes reach the wintering grounds in the warmer climates of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, they stay there for three to four months weathering the winter in a place more relaxed and certainly more comfortable. Yet the surprising thing is that they lose 80 percent of their body weight migrating south and staying the winter there and they actually return to the migration epicenter—the staging ground or feeding preparation area along the Platte, for example—emaciated and weary. It is miraculous that they actually are able to return to feed and carry on the choreography of the mating rituals and leadership selection for the northward return of spring—and it is a return, a relocating to the nesting grounds that they remember and seek, once so taught to leave.
One of the many remarkable elements of the cranes’ migration is their movement in the air when gathering en masse to stand in the river through the night and when leaving the river’s protective flow at daybreak. The movement speckling the heavens is impressive—the imprint of the streaming lines stretching out through thermals, gliding air, flying in ripples threading sky, imprinting the human eye in such a way that the movement is evident long past the leaving. The choreographed motion is impeccably astute and the cranes exhibit a mastery they are built for and belong to, and are truly meant to be.
Yet the lemming; is the lemming migration, and sometimes dangerous plunging, learned behavior? Perhaps not. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is purely instinctual response to an environmental threat, or code. Oh, but the turtle. The small things swimming through the channels, though instinctual in what they are born to reach, do share something highly effectual in the shape of motion and intentional movement inherent to their survival. They ride the Gulf Stream, entrained in the North Atlantic gyre, just as cranes surf thermals, and lay themselves into streaming momentum lifted and carried with warmly comfortable movement cradling their journeys home.
Header photo of Sandhill cranes on the Platte River, March 2012, by Simmons Buntin.