Midwestern Birds and Their Mythologies

In 2016, I completed an Honors Senior Thesis for my undergrad at DePaul. I completed seven creative nonfiction profiles of Midwestern birds based on research and observations in the field. This is an excerpt of the project.

The sky is gray but bright, and thunder contemplates rain on the horizon. I am at Horicon Marsh, near the town of Waupun, one of the densest areas for birdwatching in Wisconsin. The marsh is home to a rookery where herons, pelicans, egrets, cormorants, ducks, hawks, cranes, and more species nest and raise their young in the summer months. I walk quickly down a moss path through the thick marsh with big biting flies on my tail, past a disgruntled flock of Canada Geese. Frogs are constantly jumping in the corners of my eyes, I feel as though I can’t keep up with the bustle of life moving around me. I have to shout “I’m coming through,” to alert the geese of my presence, I don’t want them upset them. Geese have a fiery reputation, and they hiss as I pass by. “I’m not here to see you anyway.” I look over the expanse of the marsh, coated in thick tawny-green grass, and wonder what wildlife it might be concealing.

A group of Double-Crested Cormorants are perching like spindling shadows on a dead tree. Suddenly I hear a great cackling trumpet sound, and although I had never heard it before, I knew exactly who it was. I am filled with longing to see the Sandhill Cranes that are producing the call. The grass hides everything. Sandhill Cranes aren’t hard to find in the open fields of Wisconsin, but this dense marsh is another story. I hear the trumpeting echo again and this time see two long-necked birds coming in for a landing in a patch of pond nearby.

I find a place to watch them, only partially obstructed by the tall grass. They are perhaps three hundred feet away, but to me it feels like ten feet. I watch the two cranes wade through the water and hunt for food- they are omnivores and can eat anything from hay seeds to frogs and fish. There is a Great Blue Heron also hunting nearby, keeping a low profile, not displaying the showmanship that the cranes are. The pair of cranes move in unmistakable synchronization that comes from knowing another being intimately. They tilt their heads upward to announce themselves, and soon another pair makes their entrance. The cranes call back and forth to each other, presumably discussing the oncoming thunderstorm. One of the couples takes flight, each wing beat in perfect unison, enough to rival Olympic synchronized swimmers. They even dip their heads in the same way. Every movement is a mirror image, seemingly effortless. They say when you spend all your time with someone, they start to rub off on you. You begin to adopt their mannerisms, and the two of you think alike. This is nature’s imperative version of love.

Cranes are an iconic symbol in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures. They are a symbol of love, longevity, and good fortune. These slender, stick-legged creatures are incapable of perching in trees, but excel at moving through shallow water. Found around the world, cranes are often admired for their graceful flight and dancing. Sandhill cranes are the most populous of all crane species, residing and migrating throughout the United States and Canada. With an average wingspan of five feet, three inches, they are a sight to behold, especially during the massive group migrations. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes beat their wide wings in unison to softly take off from the water, their trumpets crescendoing into a great wave of sound. Alongside the flourishing Sandhill Cranes are their close relatives, Whooping Cranes, who are few in number but frequent the same areas.

A Sandhill Crane is a silty-brown bird with a red patch on its head, and bright orange eyes. Male Sandhill Cranes often spread mud on their chests to color themselves, dressing up to attract mates. Cranes have remarkable mating customs that differentiate them from other bird species. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and often spend time ‘dating’ multiple individuals before settling down with a single mate. If the couple cannot produce fertile eggs, they do ‘divorce’ and take another mate. Additionally, if a crane’s mate dies, they will have a period of mourning, but then take another mate. Birds are pragmatic, unlike people, they can move past their broken hearts more easily.

The dancing behavior that Cranes are known for is not a mating ritual, but more of a way to bond with others. Crane couples will dance throughout their relationship, as a way to have fun and show off for each other. Though not strictly rhythmic, Sandhill Crane dancing is an unmistakable behavior. The hopping, twirling, dips and trumpeting of the Sandhill Crane dance are very distinctive and elegant. These birds have a passion for companionship to rival that of human beings.

The International Crane Foundation, an educational and research institute entirely devoted to Cranes, is headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The part open to the public only accounts for a small portion of the cranes on the premises, but on display are all 15 species of cranes in the world. Some of the cranes are friendly to people and others are reproachful, but all have an opinion one way or the other. It is clear that Sandhill Cranes have social needs that are as vital as eating and drinking. The cranes are only separated from humans by fences or netting, and visitors are warned not to mimic the calls or movements of the cranes because they could become agitated or confused. They always react when they see people, approaching with either a menacing or excited demeanor. They watch you, listen to you. Despite their generally gentle nature, crane beaks are strong enough to punch through a turtle’s shell, and they are very territorial.

The founders of the Crane Foundation were two Cornell University ornithology students, looking for a place to keep the cranes they had for research. They ended up renting a family farm in rural Wisconsin and setting up shop there. In those early days, it became apparent just how dependent on socialization cranes are. Tex, a member of the endangered species, the Whooping Cranes, had been “imprinted” on humans, meaning that she thought she was a human herself, having been raised in the San Antonio Zoo. It was crucial that she reproduce, as the Whooping Crane population had fallen well below one hundred birds. The trouble was, Tex did not want another crane mate. Because she had only been socialized with humans, what she wanted was a human mate. One of the two founders, George Archibald, volunteered for the job. He put his bed in her little shed, and stayed by her side constantly for a month. He would dance with her in the patterns that cranes dance, by jumping, flapping wings (or in this case arms) pirouetting, and doing deep bows. Eventually Tex fell in love. George’s presence triggered Tex to begin laying eggs, and after a few unsuccessful clutches, she finally produced offspring. Throughout the process other researchers would try to replace George, but Tex wouldn’t accept them. George was her only mate until the day she died.

One of the most important reasons that Sandhill Cranes thrive in the Midwest is because they have adapted well to farmland. Sandhill Cranes eat seeds on the outskirts of hay, soy and cornfields. One of the research endeavors at the International Crane Foundation is to develop a chemical to be sprayed on crops that gives the seeds a bitter taste, so that they are repelled without being hurt. The easiest way to see Sandhill Cranes is to drive through the Wisconsin countryside, scanning the grids of crop for pairs of cranes.

 

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