Pondering the Mysteries of Migration

March 25, 2015

“Yea, the stork in heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”
— Jeremiah 8:7

“Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes — 80 percent of all the cranes on the planet — congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds.  This staging is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou.”
–Alex Shoumatoff, “500,000 Cranes Are Headed for Nebraska in One of Earth’s Greatest Migrations,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2014


Sandhill cranes return to the Platte River

Sandhill cranes return to the Platte River


“Bird migration is the one truly unifying phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. . . . the most compelling drama in all of natural history.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

I felt very privileged to have witnessed this dramatic migration of the sandhill cranes this Spring.  Scientists have given a lot of thought to how bird migration works — the urge to move vast distances is instinctual and genetically programmed in part.  Birds follow some combination of sun by day, stars by night, earth’s magnetic field, polarized light, landmarks.  To me it is a mystery and a wonder and a metaphor for the ebbs and flows of human life.  Cranes represent good fortune and longevity.

The Spring migration of sandhill cranes is particularly concentrated in the area of the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island, Nebraska because this is the remaining good habitat for refueling on their return to the north to breed — a wide shallow river, nearby cornfields for foraging waste corn.

“Migration is, fundamentally, about food, not temperature.”
— Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migrating Birds

This habitat has been shrinking.  It gives one pause to consider how man has encroached upon and threatened one of nature’s most massive migrations.  This is certainly a phenomenon worth preserving for our children and grandchildren.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight


“I search out the cranes every spring for precisely this reason:  because they can be counted upon, because their lives are predictable, their movements regular, and their habits ordered.  It is as comforting to know that the cranes have come back to the Platte in March as to feel the blood pulsing through the veins in my own wrists.  It is a tangible sign that all is still well with the world.”
— Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

“We ourselves seldom comprehend the moment at hand.  So we turn to history, the one element of our lives it is possible to fix on.  Or we turn to principle.  Or we turn to nature.  There we find, amid the silence and mystery, order and structure, the sense that life is not simply random.  The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.  Pasque flowers bloom in April and prairie gentians in September and never the reverse.  The spiral of the shell of the right-handed pond snail is always logarithmic.  In March the sandhill cranes always return to a certain meadow northwest of North Platte, Nebraska.  These are truths we can depend on.”
–Paul Gruchow, “The Nebraska Sandhills: The Flight of Cranes,” from The Necessity of Empty Places

Sandhill cranes in flight

Sandhill cranes in flight


by Deborah Cummins, from The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

Once more, in their dumb unknowing,
sandhill cranes are pulled to a place
they must again and again get back to.
I lean on a rake and scan the sky
for their small Chinese brushstrokes arrowing blue.
But it’s their wild, wondrous sound
that pierces me, their high trill
more thrilling than two young deer that at dawn
incised our lawn with their slender hooves,
lured by the dwarf apples’ windfall.

Wherever the cranes’ journey ends,
some shoreline probed by assiduous tides,
my garden’s just another particular
and less important than the prairies, hills
or rivers the cranes clamor over,
all breath and billow and creaking pinions,
their passage as compelled and unyielding
as the thump a ripe apple makes
falling.  And quick
as that sound, the cranes are here, then not.
I’m left with dirt and rake.

As a child, I lay awake
in the colorless dark and waited for dawn’s oncoming
freight, its whistle’s single mournful whine.
How that last especially when it was cold, hung
in the air of my room, our house,
above the river thick with ice, the hills beyond.
I didn’t understand but knew.
Not the sound, but the ache after.




One Response to “Pondering the Mysteries of Migration”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I’ve always taken great comfort in the cycles of nature, myself. This is our time of great transition — the swallows coming back, the coots leaving. Even the great flocks of grackles and starlings, common as they are, can delight the heart when they pass over the cars stopped at traffic lights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: