Put Your Hands on the Radio

“When are the birds going to leave?” If the question was written on a piece of paper and held up to a mirror, it would read the classic migration question, “When are you arriving in Florida?” The answer is always the same. “Only the Shadow knows!” But it’s that time of year. I know, not because of the crescendo of questions, but because I find myself beginning to reminisce. The winter’s highlights creep into the mind, begging for replay and reflection. And as I stare out at the marsh from the blind, the view split-screens into what is and what was. Like the conversation I had a few weeks back with #8-10.

His transmitter beeps announced he was hanging out in the neighboring marsh, having suffered banishment from the pen area by #4-12. Time and time again he had attempted to cross the mote, scale the pen walls and join the kingdom of the chicks, only to be thwarted again and again by the aggressive rage of that ruling despot. So what was he up to now, I wondered.

That afternoon, I camo’ed up, drove to the nearest access point and, looking like a fugitive from “Duck Dynasty,” hiked in to the ruins of the old Confederate salt works where I could observe him unnoticed. There he was out on the flats in exile, his whiter-than-white body and red head sparkling against the backdrop of marsh. Like an old man sweeping the beach with his metal detector, he moved methodically over the flats, probing here and there for the tasty whatever’s lying just below the surface. I watched for an hour or so as my urge to be closer grew. Finally, I pulled my portable blind/costume from my pack, pulled it on and walked out to join the little fellow.

Adult Whooping crane

Almost 4-yr. old male Whooping crane #8-10 probes in the mud flats on St. Marks NWR.

He continued his efforts as if not to even notice my presence. Strange, I thought as I walked along next to him for many minutes. It had been years since I last saw him. How wondrous a little creature he was! How beautiful! Imagine the experiences he must have had over the last four years. And what mysteries has he solved. What secrets can he tell? I found myself involuntarily examining his head for a USB port to download the data when he said in a casual tone, not even looking up at me, “Forget about it, Bucko. It wouldn’t do you any good anyway. You’re not programmed for answers, just questions.” Then looking up at me, “Why are you humans so preoccupied with questions to which there are no answers anyway? It’s like your national pastime or something.”

“I didn’t know you could talk!” I answered in shocked amazement.

“I didn’t know you could listen… or even hear.” He replied.

“That’s bit harsh, don’t you think?”

“Sorry. But the real understanding of anything just isn’t in your DNA. You’re not wired for it. Did it ever occur to you that we’ve been trying to tell you something for decades but you’re just not listening?”

Listening to what?” I asked.

“Ok ok!” he shrugged, shaking his head in obvious exasperation. “Forget it. So how were sales this year?”

“Sales of what?”

“Hope, of course. You’re selling Hope. You’re in the “Feel Good Business,” right? Like the religious thing and the self-improvement thing. “Put your hands on the radio” and all. It makes you feel good to try and save us while you continue to destroy yourselves by turning the planet into a Super Fund Site. Don’t you realize that the only real hope we have is that you go extinct before we do? So, how did it go this year?

“Fine… I guess.”

Sensing my confusion, he shifted gears. “Let’s forget about the big picture for a moment and focus on the little one. I want back in that pen! Look. Migration wasn’t easy. I sat around every morning waiting for thermals in what few good places are left with decent habitat and a good menu while trying my damndest to stay clear of backyard bird feeders and those good intentioned humans. Then when I did get airborne, someone always seemed to be shooting at me or trying to run me down with an airplane.

Some nights I was forced to hang out with sandhills. They’re good at spotting predators but man, are they ever BOOORING! I’d hang with whoopers but only a handfull come down this far south any more. What I’m saying is that it’s a lonely trip. I go to all this trouble to make it back down here and what welcome do I get? #4-12, Mr. Nasty, won’t even let me hang out in the pen. I have to tell you, I’m just not feeling the love!”

“Sorry about that.”

“I’ll bet you are! How about you give that little bugger a chill pill in his grape. Or better yet, call Dr. Phil and have him come down here so you can put a costume on him and send him out to the pen for an intervention. What do you say?”

I was about to reply when suddenly the entire marsh was assaulted by an ear shattering roar, half mechanical, half electronic, originating from somewhere down within the bowels of the earth and climbing with insidious ferocity up upon the landscape. The fillings began to dance in my teeth and my pupils began to backstroke around the whites of my eyes. I found myself in a swirling, suffocating vortex of every bad landing I had ever made, every bad idea I ever had and every French fry I had ever eaten. And just when the train on which I was a passenger was about to pull into the station of life’s final destination, I reached out to the heavens for salvation with my right hand and to the edge of the bed with my left… to turn off my alarm clock.

Post Script: I received the following email from Eva Szyszkoski, International Crane Foundation, this morning: “Just FYI, 8-10 was confirmed in Indiana yesterday.”

adult Whooping crane

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  1. Mark Chenoweth March 17, 2014 2:24 pm

    Brooke, you always say what many are thinking, and if you aren’t halfway or more through ‘that project’ we discussed a few years back, I would be shocked! Some things are natural… it’s not a game of ‘one-upsmanship’, but rather communication! Natural thing, and will be most anticipated. Hope all is well these days! Miss talking with you and the team. Really! Mark

  2. Ann Gillis March 13, 2014 5:28 pm

    Thank you for that wonderful story. You are soooo talented in many ways. We love you and those birds….

  3. canadianhoot March 13, 2014 4:31 pm

    Smiling from ear to ear on an otherwise dreary day. Thank you for sharing your crane visions with us. You are a master craftsman of words . Love your writing. Thank you.

  4. Ann Crothers March 13, 2014 1:39 pm

    Great story! Too bad the alarm woke you. Would love to hear the rest of the story.

  5. Jayne Gulbrand March 13, 2014 12:34 pm

    Love this journal entry!

  6. Gerald March 13, 2014 12:11 pm

    HA–the best Brooke post yet (again and again and again–getting tiresome to keep repeating this). Thanks for the great stuff you post.

  7. Patti Hakanson March 13, 2014 11:23 am

    As always an amazing read… What a beautiful entry.. And what a beautiful bird…. Thanks Brooke. This made my day.

  8. Russell Allison March 13, 2014 10:13 am

    I think you have been in the Crane chow again. I love your stories. Keep up the great work you ,at Operation Migration, are doing. We will follow you again this fall and hope to see you in Berlin in Sept.

  9. Christie Sloan March 13, 2014 9:47 am

    Lovely read! Thanks.

  10. Sherry Wynn March 13, 2014 9:34 am

    All your journal entries should be published! So well written and entertaining, Brooke! thank you!

  11. Joey Urey March 13, 2014 8:44 am

    What a wonderful story. I read them to my husband every time and getting him interested as I am. We hope to have the spring Southern Craniac meeting here next year. Love to have you come and be our story teller.

  12. Hope Brogunier March 13, 2014 8:43 am

    Thank you Brooke..this is a day brightener during a blizzard!Beautiful subject and writing!

  13. Warrenwesternpa March 13, 2014 8:17 am

    13 March 2014 “Put Your Hands on the Radio”, Brooke Pennypacker

    There is so much for us to think about and realize. Brooke, you even allow us to enter your dreams.Thanks again! #8-10 is now going to his summer home. I hope he finds a lady friend for companionship next winter. It’s not good to be alone!


  14. LindiLovesBirds March 13, 2014 7:58 am

    Wow, awesome, I can just picture that conversation happening. You truly are a gifted writer.