Alice and I have participated in the Annual Midwest Crane Count for many years. It happens annually in early April. We commit to getting up very early on that Saturday morning, driving to our site, and standing quietly for several hours watching and listening for Sandhill Cranes. We have a data sheet with us on which we mark the calls we hear and the direction they came from, or the sightings. Ours and hundreds of other volunteers’ data are then entered online, and the International Crane Foundation folks get a good snapshot of how many cranes there are and where they are on their migration.

Besides being a tiny part of an important data collection effort, Alice and I spend several hours standing still on a morning in early spring. We always are surprised at how interesting it is to stand quietly and watch the world wake up. Besides our cranes, we often see lots of other birds, deer, and people who drive by slowly and wonder “what the heck those people are doing?” Over the years we’ve done this we’ve also developed a great affection for Sandhill Cranes.

Due to some health issues, we were unable to participate in this year’s crane count. We’ve made several trips down to Green Bay and back, including one just a few days ago. This one involved the 4 hour drive to Green Bay, a couple of hours at the doctor’s office, and then 4 hours back home. We were both pretty tired when we got home at the end of that day.

On the way down, I was in the pilot seat of the car, and Alice ran the navigation station. One place she really excels is spotting deer on the road. I’ll be tooling down the road thinking about this and that when I hear, “DEER!” I’ll look up and sure enough, a deer is looking our way and contemplating a leap into the front of our car. My habit is to slow down and tap my horn until the deer decides to move out of the way. We’re still cautious, though, because there are often other deer nearby that could also jump in front of the car.

Just this side of Crystal Falls on the drive south, the familiar DEER! alarm sounded, and sure enough there were a couple of figures lurking in the road. As we got closer, we saw they were not deer. I slowed down and tapped the horn, and the animals moved off the road. It turned out they were Sandhill Cranes… two of them. There was a third laying dead on the road. The two living birds were reluctant to leave the road, but as we got closer, they did move. One was quite a bit larger than the other, leading us to believe that the one that had been killed was one of the parents, leaving the other parent and this year’s chick.

We swerved around the dead bird and continued on our way for a very short time. Something made me pull over to the side of the road and stop. If I didn’t do something, the other two birds would surely walk back into the road, imperiling their lives. After a few seconds, I did a U turn, pulled over to the shoulder next to the dead bird and got out of the car. One of the living birds was staring at me about 40′ from the side of the road. The other had hidden in the brush further away. There were some loud vocalizations.

With as much respect as I could muster, and with some moisture in my eyes, I grabbed the still warm legs of the dead bird, and moved it well off the road into the brush. My thinking was the grieving birds would no longer have to stand in the road over their dead family member, and would thus be safer. After doing what I could do, we got back into the car, did another U turn, and continued on our way to Green Bay.

It was a solemn drive. I was touched by how these birds were reacting to the death of their family member. I am often skeptical when people tell me that animals do not feel grief like we do. The disbelief and pain was palpable when I faced the two surviving birds.

On our way back home, I did locate the approximate place where the dead bird was located. I didn’t slow down but did look onto the side of the road, and did not see any live birds. I figured that by this time they must have moved along. Dusk was painting the sky near the horizon. A few minutes further down the road, I saw the unmistakable silhouette of two cranes flying. It was unlikely they were our birds, but I saluted them anyway. Life can be so fraught with danger. One minute all is normal, and the next minute a scary loud machine ends the life of the parent/mate that has been with you for so long. But you have to face the fact they aren’t continuing with you on your journey. You’ll have to spread your magnificent wings and continue your journey. Safe travels my friends.

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