A Miracle on Highway 224

On April 25, 2011, in Nature, by Meghan

A Sandhill Crane wanders through a pond (photo by Bryon Powell).

The modern pterodactyl, I thought you were. You and the rest of your Sandhill Crane kind arrived on the wing during the earliest reaches of spring, when the nights still froze cold. You gathered, a few birds in a flooded pasture, two more next to a pond-ed field, eight or so in a wide swath of swamp. I wondered, do you stand all night in the water and, if so, can you feel the cold?

Soon you began to speak. With your mating calls, I became certain that you do belong better with the dinosaurs than on a mammal-filled Earth. Your vocalization was neither a hawk’s screech, nor a hen’s cluck, nor a frog’s croak. It was a breath-filled vibration born in your thick neck and birthed from that sharp, long beak as a hollow and gregarious “c-c-c-c-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-k-k-k-k-k!” I may have been mile from your swamp when you spoke, but your song entered my soul.

Now it’s full-fledged spring and, Momma Sandhill, you have made a nest. Right next to Highway 224 here in Park City, you roost atop a platform of grass. On your side of the fence, beaver wetland makes a home for Mallards, Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as splashing fish and frogs whose names I do not know. On my side is five lanes of highway humanity and our moving metal boxes, all bustle. I watch you once, twice. I could watch you all day. You’ve got your yellow iris-ed eyes on me, though, and I don’t wish to disturb you.

Momma Sandhill sits on her nest (photo by Bryon Powell).

When I visit you the first time, you’re resting. Your crane neck arcs up from your body and then down to where your beak contacts the nest. I imagine that such roosting patience must be hard, using your body’s warmth to grow the beasts inside those eggs. I wonder if you understand what you do, or if you follow some sort of primordial instinct. You are big, so big, and your size inspires speculation about how a bird of your size takes flight. But, I know about hollow bird bones and I see that you’re mostly made of weightless feathers. The span of your wings is probably wider than I am tall, yet I bet you weigh less than 10 pounds.

On my second visit, you’re mucking around in the wetland. I gasp when I see your two baseball-sized eggs because, to me, they are miracles. I suspect you’re off the nest to eat and drink, but two Mallards are floating through at the same time. You watch them, then tilt your head toward the water, then watch them some more. I imagine the ducks are scaring the fish, your dinner, away. When I begin to wonder if you’re annoyed by them, you let loose a stuttered “creeek!” The Mallards pay no attention to your warning call, so you let ‘er rip two more times until they finally swim off.

Momma Sandhill takes a break from her nest (photo by Bryon Powell).

It seems you’ve given up on the chance of gainful dinner. You lift one stick-like leg at a time, bending at the hip, knee, and ankle, until your foot is completely out of the knee-deep-to-you water. When your clawed toes reach air, you plunge that leg forward and down. This is how you move through shallow water. It’s graceful and awkward at the same time, and I can’t get enough of watching your shiny, jet-black legs work this magic.

Momma Sandhill with her two eggs (photo by Bryon Powell).

At the nest, you climb on top and lower your head to the eggs. Your beak looks to me like a dagger, but you use it to make gentle adjustments to the eggs’ positions. You look everything like an expectant mother at this moment. You bend your legs, nestling the eggs under your breast as you lay.

Something’s not quite right, though, because you stand back up. With that beak, you make another adjustment and lay again. Still not right, I suppose, so you stand once more. A cold, evening breeze blows a couple of your breast feathers out of their alignment. I see that, under your rusty plumage are some secret, white feathers. From here, even, on my side of the fence, those white feathers look delicious and inviting. You’ll use them to stay warm tonight, I’m sure.

Momma Sandhill sits on her eggs and nest (photo by Bryon Powell).

You rotate around the nest a bit, roll one egg over about half way, then lower your big body. There’s a little wiggling that happens as you settle in, but the third time is a comfortable charm, I guess.

I become aware of the rest of the world, the noise of passing cars, the charming banter of life in your wetland. This juxtaposition of natural and unnatural, modern and ancient is unnerving. I am told that city sub-contractors have before disassembled the beaver dam that creates your pond, something about preventing a flood in a local neighborhood. You’ve built your nest in the middle to protect yourself and your eggs from land-based predators, no doubt. How would you fare if your wetland dried up? You could be easily killed by any obnoxious person with a pellet gun, right from the highway. You’re so close that even someone with a bad shot could get the job done. Do you have a defense for this sort of terror? And, the Park City dogs. Few humans obey leash laws, so the domestic canids run wild. There’s a bike path about 75 meters off and unleashed dogs on it right now. I bet you’d give dogs your best aggression, flapping your wide wings around them, pecking at their faces with your beak, clawing at them with your three biggest toes. Would it be enough?

Momma Sandhill finall settles into her nest (photo by Bryon Powell).

These are questions for which there aren’t answers, not here on the side of the road now, while you prepare for an overnight on the nest. It’s Easter day, and I don’t believe in any god, but as I start my car and drive away, I pray. I say a prayer for you, Momma Sandhill and your two embryonic souls, that evolution has been kind to you. I pray that you possess the adaptive powers to navigate the muddy waters of this juxtaposed life.



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8 Responses to “A Miracle on Highway 224”

  1. JeffO says:

    Very cool! It would be great to see a Sandhill so close. We need a webcam on this! Sandhill hatchlings.

  2. I met my first Sandhill Crane near my best friends cabin when I was abut 13 years old. These birdies aren’t so common here, so when I first laid my eyes on it I KNEW I was looking at something special. Actually, when I first woke up in the early AM and heard it, I knew I was hearing something special – something I hadn’t heard before. The red markings confirmed that I was seeing something special and my inner bird nerd was exploding with delight! It woke me up from my slumber and I actually got out of bed in my flannel P.J’s to go outside and see what was making all of the ruckus. You can imagine my excitement when I saw it roosted atop a beaver lodge, flapping it’s wings doing a mating dance. C-c-c-r-r-r-e-e-eee-ee-k-k-k!!

  3. Steve says:

    There’s been one on a nest in the little pond by Highland Dr & Kingsford Ave for a few weeks now. Things like this make me want to go zoom-lens shopping!

    • Meghan says:

      Steve, thanks for the heads up on this nest. I didn’t know about it, but will go out there and have a look. If all goes well with this pair on Highway 224, the eggs should hatch sometime before the end of this coming weekend. Bebe sandhills, yip! Thanks again for the tip!

  4. […] in one of the wettest springs on record in Park City, Utah, magic happened. Over the weekend, the beloved Sandhill Crane of Highway 224 hatched a baby! On Saturday at about noon, mom and pop Sandhill Crane (Mom's on the left and […]

  5. The End says:

    […] you’re just joining in, here’s a link to my blog post from just after the Sandhill Crane pair began incubating their eggs. This is the post in which I […]

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