Prairie Bird Songs

By Beacon Staff

I’m spending the bulk of my time east of the mountains these days. That has its plusses and minuses. For instance, come February I’ll look up at the sky and see the sun. I won’t feel it mind you, as the temperature will be about 20 below. But I’ll see that shiny orb, and I’ll tell myself as long as it’s sunny I really don’t mind the cold.

I know, these are the things we tell ourselves to make it through winter. Rationalizations are always better than facing reality when reality is 20 below.

The make up of wild critters on the plains is quite a bit different than from over in the mountains. Pronghorn are everywhere. Quite a few mule deer as well. They like this drier country and once you get away from the river bottoms muleys seem to abound. Elk are scarce of course, but that’s OK by me.

It’s the birds that fascinate me most, and the plains bird that I’ve been most fixated on lately are sandhill cranes. It’s not that we don’t see these birds west of the mountains. I recall one brisk fall morning a few years ago when my attention on the kids soccer match was broken by a flock of a hundred or so sandhills getting up off the grain fields west of Kidsports.

The birds were riding a thermal, slowly circling ever higher until at last they caught whatever blast of upper elevation air currents they needed to continue the ride south.

The whole act took nearly as long as the soccer match, and all the while we got to listen to that trilling call. Crane calls remind me of a turkey, sort of, but not exactly. Cranes are much more lyrical to my ear, with a kind of sonic vibration. When I try to imagine the birds in my mind, I always hear that call first, then I conjure up a visual of the gangly fowl. Crane calls are what I suppose the offspring would sound like if scientists had cloned a Merriam’s turkey with Whitney Houston.

I’m apparently not the only one who hears a little turkey in the song of cranes. Hunters trying to mimic that lyrical vibrato often use modified turkey calls instead.

Hunting, by the way, is not my preferred method for interacting with cranes. I really have no interest hunting them. I’m not sure what it is exactly that moves them out of the game species category for me. I don’t condemn those who choose to hunt them, however. I’ve been told the breast meat is quite tasty, and they are clearly a challenging bird to hunt. Besides modified turkey calls, serious crane hunters have to employ scores of mounted birds as decoys to draw sandhills into range.

Shiny plastic deeks that will fool Canada geese all day long spook ultra-wary cranes.

There weren’t many sandhill cranes in urban Southern California where I grew up, and I didn’t see my first until I visited Alaska on a fishing trip sometime in my 20s. While navigating a river in search of migrating coho salmon we came upon a pair of cranes and a single, flightless juvenile that, despite its youth, still stood a good three feet tall.

There was a film crew in one of the other boats, and they got their cameras out and chased that poor chick across the tundra for almost an hour trying to get some B roll to use for the fishing show they were filming. The adult birds all the while flew about 10 feet above this circus.

While I don’t remember the sound of their calls exactly, my memory is still good enough to recall that there wasn’t anything lyrical about it. Pissed off enough to poke an eye out with their dagger-like bills better describes it. Cranes, apparently, are good moms and dads.

For now I get to be in the presence of cranes. I see them in fields, and occasionally hear them calling in the sky above the river as I fish. But winter will eventually push them south, and when it does I’ll have to go back to imagining the voice of cranes, at least until spring.

Rob Breeding writes, teaches and watches his kids play soccer when he’s not fishing or hunting. He lives in Kalispell.

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