Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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This morning, out of a storm grey dawn, there is a crimson opening in the sky. Sandhill cranes fly across the crimson, dark forms against flame, a grand avian celebration of the dawn.

The first birds come in silence, a pair from the north, three from the Rio Grande to the east, five more fly over the house, their shadows visible before the birds themselves. As more arrive, the air fills with their voices, the unison calls of pairs, layers and layers of calls as larger groups appear, the mingled voices a constant clamoring trumpet, a huge primeval sound resonating in the elongated tracheas of these ancient birds.

Dropping their legs as they approach the ground, they are like planes dropping landing gear. Wing-flapping to break the fall, they land on two feet, their legs slightly forward to absorb the impact. All but the crippled crane, the one with a foot facing backward, the one who stands permanently on one leg. For him, the entire impact is on his single good leg, although he uses his tail for balance. He comes earlier than the others, as if he needs more space to land, as if he needs the place to himself for as long as possible before the others gather, his lame leg making it difficult to eat as quickly as the other birds, to gather as much of the corn we and our next door neighbors throw out for them each morning. We are there before dawn scattering corn. Sometimes, if we are a moment too late, and they see us as they approach, they reverse course, circle, fly off. Usually they return. Sometimes they head for the next corn down the line.

We feed the cranes from late December until late February. While thousands overwinter at the Bosque del Apache, a hundred miles south of us on the Rio Grande, large flocks stop in “our” bosque. At the Bosque del Apache, corn fields are planted for the cranes. There are a few people along our bosque who also plant corn for them, and a several more of us who throw out corn each morning before dawn.

The fly in takes about twenty minutes. Then the ground is covered by cranes. We have counted 70 in the two adjoining fields. Occasionally two jump up, breast to breast, their wings outspread, each trumpeting ownership of some morsel of corn, displaying heroically while the other birds go on about the business of eating. Macho may look magnificent, but it doesn’t get you fed . . .

I haven’t seen the crippled bird in several days. Perhaps I am just missing him in the crowd. Perhaps he died. Somewhere else. Maybe along the river. There is no drama to it. One day he is simply not there. A moment in nature. Life. Death. The others still fly in at first light, circling, landing. One crane dies somewhere I cannot see and thousands of years of evolution continue. It is so simple there is almost no way to comprehend it.

Something scares them. In an explosion of wingbeats, they take off as one. Often they fly directly over the house so that, in my room I am underneath them, so close I can see the separate wing feathers, the red crown running from the base of the bill, under the eyes and over the top of the head.

Later, some birds return. Not all. There are the regulars, the ones who regard this as their particular ground. We believe they are the same birds that have been coming for several years, ever since we started feeding. The crippled bird is a regular.

It is not long before we will witness a restlessness, signal of the approaching migration. One morning the cranes will gather in the sky. More and more groups will join the huge flock already aloft until there are so many cranes, there is hardly space for sky. Then, suddenly, they will be gone.

And the sky will be as empty as if the cranes had never come.

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Rudner