When I was a kid, one of the greatest things I liked about watching the Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings was the ending. “Hi ho Silver, Away!” and off into the sunset he’d go, followed by his politically correct Indian side kick, Tonto. Then came the words, “Who was that masked man?” and the reply, “I don’t know, but he left a silver bullet, a pair of dirty long johns, a melted snow cone and my wallet is missing!” or words to that affect followed by the credits. My point is, when the show was over, you knew it.
When I first got into the crane business, I asked the numerous project crane experts, “How can you tell when a crane is getting ready to migrate?” to which the crane experts rolled their collective eyes and replied with the obvious irritation, “Easy. You go out to the pen one day and he’ll be gone.” Now why didn’t I think of that!
Turns out there are ways to tell, but they are often quite subtle and sometimes only recognizable when viewed through the prism of hindsight. Like last Friday morning when the birds burst out of the pen on their regular morning flight. My fingers immediately joined the count as the blotches of white danced in and out of the rising sunlight. Eight… only eight! Where… and who is number nine? In this morning-pen-check- equation, nine equaled four, 4-12, that is, who was standing one legged preening at the edge of the south pen pond. Unusual, I thought. He’s usually at the end of the flight line. With cranes as with people, it’s often not so much what you see as what you don’t see that tells the story. Or at least it whispers a suggestion of something. Teasing out the meanings often makes a Rubik’x Cube seem like child’s play in comparison.
As the chicks landed back in the pen, I walked over to the little fellow and looked him over for any sign of a problem. He looked up at me as if to say, “It’s cool, dude” and tucked his head back into his wing to sleep. Even the flock of ibis standing near him seemed unusually unconcerned and the chicks never even came over to mess with him. Odd, I thought.
But then there have been a number of odd-but-interesting behaviors coming out of him this winter. His territorial imperative, hormonal spikes or his diploma from the “Charlie Manson School of How to Win Friends and Influence People” have provided quite an interesting soap opera. First, he chased off the two Southwood birds, #11 and 15-09, each of the four days they came to visit. (They, by the way, left on migration two weeks ago) Then he morphed into complete “Terminator Mode” when poor little #8-10 showed up to play and repeatedly chased him in long aerial pursuits over the marsh and into exile. And just when peace began to return to the pen, he turned on his old constant companion of two years, #5-12, and chased him out of the area. All this, while even the smallest of the chicks, little female #2-13, regularly gave him a daily dose of “Whoop-ass.” Spending all winter at the bottom of the pecking order couldn’t have been fun and illustrates the difficulty in releasing a large group of chicks with one or two older ones. This is just one of a number of like experiences over the years. There is definitely unit cohesion in the world of chick cohorts. It is a bond not easily broken or influenced by one or two upper class-men.
But despite having experienced this situation previously, we couldn’t help but hope that our chicks would learn from this older, more experienced fellow. Perhaps a survival trick or two or even the easiest and safest migration route back to Wisconsin. Something!
But like human teenagers, it would appear crane chicks just don’t contain the proper enzyme to digest such nourishing wisdom. Not that #4 or #5-12 tried all that hard. They did great at being wild and doing wild things prior to the chick’s arrival. #4 pulled out some serious fish from the pen pond and gobbled them down with all the grace and skill of a circus sword swallower, while #5 probed the depths of the marsh for its bounty of snails and crabs like a jackhammer in heat. However, once the chicks were released from the top-netted pen and the feeders were hung and filled, the two old boys went back on Welfare. No more fishing or singing “Wild Thing.” From then on, it appeared the only thing the chicks learned from the older birds was how much fun it was to beat up on them.
Still, there was the hope or at least the meager expectation that #4-12 would assist the chicks on their migration back to Wisconsin. But alas, that was not to be. When I returned to the blind Friday afternoon, he was gone, having left on migration alone. No note, no text, no farewell email. Just. Gone.
To my surprise, I felt suddenly sad and realized I missed him already. This feeling was perhaps accentuated by the fact that the chicks continued to do their usual chick things as if not to even notice his absence. Tough crowd, these chicks! Perhaps it’s because they only spent one winter with him. I spent two. Or that he had also spent most of last summer getting in our way up in White River Marsh.
But perhaps #4-12’s real purpose here was not so much to teach the chicks as it was to teach us. Maybe his lesson was not just one of biology, of wildlife behavior, of mysteries that spawn mysteries, but rather of the importance and necessity of thoroughly enjoying the presence of another while the opportunity exists. To share with them the present. To cherish and savor those moments. To squeeze from them all the joy and wonder they hold within. And maybe in the doing of this, we will be granted a privileged view through a larger keyhole of all that is truly meaningful. No silver bullet, this, but a silver lining for sure.
God speed, #4-12. See you next summer on the runway at White River Marsh.