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Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes, New Edition

Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes, New Edition

by Paul A. Johnsgard
Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes, New Edition

Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes, New Edition

by Paul A. Johnsgard

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With Paul A. Johnsgard, we follow the migration of the sandhill cranes from the American Southwest to their Alaskan breeding grounds and back again, an annual pattern that has persisted over millions of years. By selecting four historic time frames of the migration between 1860 and 1980, Johnsgard illustrates how humans have influenced the flocks and how different American cultures have variously responded to the birds and perceived their value.

Each section focuses on the interactions between children of four different American cultures and sandhill cranes, triggered by events occurring during the annual life cycle of the cranes. The story is enriched by the author’s exquisite illustrations, by Zuni prayers, and by Inuit and Pueblo legends. With a new preface and afterword and a new gallery of photographs by the author, Those of the Gray Wind is a classic story of a timeless ritual that can be enjoyed for generations to come.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496201935
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 13 Years

About the Author

Paul A. Johnsgard is Foundation Regents Professor Emeritus in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He has received conservation and research awards from the National Audubon Society, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the National Wildlife Federation, and other state and national organizations. Johnsgard is the author of more than eighty books on natural history, including Sandhill and Whooping Cranes: Ancient Voices over America’s Wetlands and Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie: A Nebraska Year, both available in Bison Books editions.

Read an Excerpt


North to the flat Waters

A bitter wind was driving out of the northwest, and occasionally a mixture of sleet and snow battered their wings, but the cranes pushed ever northward. They had left New Mexico Territory nearly two days before, and other than spending the previous night along the banks of the Arkansas River, they had been flying continuously. The flock was a gigantic one, numbering uncounted thousands of birds, all intent on reaching Nebraska Territory and the Platte River, where their collective memory assured them of an abundant water supply and safety from coyotes and prairie wolves.

The young crane flew, as usual, between his parents, occasionally tilting his head to the side so that he could see the details of the land below. Once he saw a small herd of bison, and now and again a group of antelope would hear the cranes and briefly look up from their grazing to watch the birds pass overhead.

The land below was still partly covered by snow, especially on north slopes and in the ravines and valleys, where small creeks cut their way through the native prairies of the western Flint Hills. As the birds passed the Republican River, many of them pulled away from the main flock and circled the river several times, but there were no wide bars or islands on which they could roost. Thus, reluctantly, they struck out again into the eye of the wind, and set their minds toward the smudgy dark line that was the Platte Valley, which was somewhere just out of sight on the northern horizon.

The long, wavering gray line of cranes was like a giant aerial armada, weaving and advancing on Nebraska in wave after wave of birds, stretching as far as the eye could see — even beyond. Among them were cranes that had spent the winter months in flocks scattered from the Staked Plains of northern Texas and eastern New Mexico Territory southward into Mexico almost to the Central Valley of Mexico, and which were now all converging on a common goal, the broad and sheltering Platte. Here they would rest and feed in peace for more than a month, gathering energy for the second and much the longest part of their spring journey, which would carry some of them to the farthest coastlines of Canada and Alaska and even beyond, to the tundra of Siberia still thousands of miles away. They would need every bit of reserve energy for this tremendous journey, for food would become increasingly hard to find as they struggled against the last gasps of the Canadian winter in their push to reach the tundra just as soon as it was becoming free of its snowy prison.

The birds maintained a continuous din, as each family tried to maintain contact with all its members, and sometimes among the clarion birrrrrrrrt calls of the adults one could hear the much higher-pitched notes of the yearling birds, whose voices even now were losing their baby quality and beginning to assume the rich timbre of the adults.

There were differences among the adults, too. The largest birds, weighing up to ten pounds, had the deepest and the most penetrating voices. These cranes had the least distance to travel, only to the forests of central Canada, before they would stop to nest. But the vast majority of the birds, weighing seven to eight pounds, and with a wingspread of about six feet, were destined to fly the farthest, and these birds had the highest and most rattling voices. These were the "lesser" sandhill cranes or "little brown" cranes. Yet, they were hardly little, and none of them were yet brown. Not until they arrived at their nesting grounds would their plumages become stained with brown. Now they were almost uniformly ash-gray, save for the patches of bare red skin on the foreheads of the adults.

The young crane occasionally called to his parents, but mostly he remained quiet, saving all his energy for fighting the wind and cold. His long legs were freezing, and sometimes he would draw them forward up into his flank feathers to try to warm them, but flying this way was so awkward and the wind resistance so great that before long he would simply let them dangle behind him and suffer the cold.

As the afternoon wore on, the snow and sleet abated, and the sky gradually brightened to the west. As the visibility improved, the birds could actually see the Platte River, a silvery knife cutting gracefully through the prairies, lined with leafless cottonwoods and elms. The river was not so much a single stream as many separate channels. Each wandered eastwardly as if it had a mind of its own about the best way to reach its destination, sometimes joining another channel for a time, but often splitting away to follow an entirely different pathway. Thus, hundreds of islands were formed, some as small as a few acres, and others several miles in area. Many of the small islands were only barren deposits of silt and sand, scoured free of vegetation by the ice that had recently covered the channels; others were just now becoming stabilized by growths of low willows and other brush that had gradually formed a protective barrier against the yearly scouring action of the ice. Still other islands were well grown to trees, and from these thickets deer occasionally bounded when they were being chased by the few prairie wolves left in the valley.

Since the earliest migrations west, the Platte Valley had been a natural corridor for mountain men, explorers, and finally, immigrants. The Mormons had followed the north side of the river on their way west from Omaha to Utah Territory, and indeed a few had been forced for various reasons to stop and remain in the valley for a time before gathering the strength and means to finish their exodus to the Promised Land. And along the southernmost channels of the river there were already ruts being cut into the prairie sod, where Conestoga wagons had worked their way westward, usually starting from Nebraska City, and frequently going as far as their meager amounts of money and equipment would carry them. In the 1850s a number of German-speaking immigrants had moved into the area from Iowa, and in 1857 they had formed a small community on the north bank of the Platte. They had decided to call it Grand Island, after the earlier fur traders' name for it. Only two years later a disastrous fire almost leveled the settlement, which was later rebuilt farther from the river. Slightly farther upstream, other Germans had chosen one of the larger islands as a place to begin homesteading, and had named it Schumacher Island.

For the cranes, these few scattered sod huts and the tiny herds of livestock were insignificant. The settlers were much too busy trying to survive to think about disturbing the birds. And the last bands of Pawnees were now being progressively forced out of the valley, particularly since the construction of Fort Kearny and the establishment of a permanent cavalry garrison to help protect the Immigrant Trail. For the cranes, as for the ducks and geese that had preceded them northward, the critical feature of the landscape was the Platte. Nowhere else in their entire spring migration would they be able to rest and forage in a river that had the combination of so many safe islands and bars for roosting, with so many wet, grassy meadows close to the channels where they could leisurely forage for germinating plants and seeds.

Here, too, the three-year-old birds, ready to mate for the first time, would strengthen their pair bonds with their new mates, by foraging together and sometimes dancing with them. Of course, dancing in cranes is almost as fundamental as eating, and even when the birds were only a few months old they had begun to bow and toss sticks or bits of grasses into the air whenever they became excited or uncertain of how to respond to a new situation. But now the dancing would have yet another purpose, that of building a bond between the newly mated birds.

Soon the young crane and his parents were over the river, and could see that thousands of others had preceded them there. Many were still feeding in the fields and meadows nearby, while others had already returned to their evening roosting sites in the middle of the broadest and most shallow channels. The arriving birds began to call loudly, and were quickly answered by the roosting birds below, as if they were welcoming them and telling them that the area was safe. Perhaps because they were so tired, the arriving cranes spent little time circling the area, for it was slowly becoming dark and hard to see.

The vast numbers of arriving birds, and the tremendous din of so many thousands, all sounding nearly alike, was confusing, almost frightening to the young crane. As the birds began to descend and prepare to land, the young bird looked frantically about for his parents, but they had somehow become separated and were lost to view. The crane stopped his descent and flared back upward, calling wildly, but his tiny voice was drowned out by the great crane chorus surrounding him. Time and again, he circled the river, but gradually lost his bearings, and soon was not even certain whether he was in the right area. The entire channel below was virtually alive with cranes, all jostling for the best shoreline positions for spending the night.

As the western sky began to fade, nearly all the cranes were on their roosts, except for a few latecomers. For the adults that had visited the Platte many times, there were no great problems in landing.

Following the deeper channels closely, they drifted in against the wind and simply gradually lost altitude and speed until they could see a small bar or island on which to land. But the young crane had never before been forced to land in such a difficult place, where the roosts were so close to tall trees, and there were no broad and open approaches to be followed. Finally, exhaustion and the darkening skies made him decide to risk a landing; later he could search for his parents. Turning upstream into the wind, he would make one last swing across the part of the river where he thought his parents might already be roosting.

As he worked his way westward, he slowly lowered his altitude, balancing caution against his eagerness to land and rest. By now it was almost totally dark, the only light that which was reflected off the river's surface. Seeing a small bar with a few cranes several hundred feet downstream, the young bird tilted his right wing down and began to ease into a slow turn.

Intent on his chosen landing place, the crane could not see the old cottonwood snag, which a few years before had been hit by lightning and now stood gaunt and dead, with one large portion hanging out over the undercutting river. As the crane passed by, his left wing struck a branch, and he was thrown into a cartwheeling tailspin into the river.

Nearly knocked unconscious by the sudden blow, the crane was suddenly transformed from a beautiful flying machine into a drowning bird, struggling to keep afloat in the icy waters. The rapid current of one of the deeper channels beside the shore was pulling him downstream. Now his long wings were only a hindrance. His feathers were not waterproof and simply soaked up the water. Struggle as he might, the bird was unable to reach the shoreline or to attempt to fly. His right wing, although not broken, was so badly bruised that he could not extend it or pull it up into his flanks. Thus, the bird floated helplessly downstream in a sodden mass of flesh and feathers.

Gradually, the cold waters numbed the bird's strength, and he abandoned his struggles to escape, resigning himself to drowning. Then his legs touched bottom, and he found himself caught in a wire fence that had recently been strung across the river by some nearby homesteaders, who were enclosing a small piece of ground for their few cattle. Now at least he would not drown, for although the fence held the bird firmly in its grip, he was just barely able to pull his head and wings up out of the freezing stream. And thus the bird spent the night, half-unconscious, occasionally waking to struggle, then again lapsing into a near coma.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, but the young bird did not hear the cranes leaving their roosts at dawn. Instead, wet and cold, he lay huddled just above the water's surface, his head and neck over one strand of the wire, his wings caught firmly by the other.

In a sod-walled hut a few hundred yards away, Kristina Hahn was getting ready to do her morning chores. Twelve years old, she had accompanied her parents and brothers west just a year ago, and when they reached the tree-lined Platte it had reminded her immigrant parents so much of their original German homeland along the Rhine that they decided to go no farther. Kristina's father had told her she must check the fence, because just the week before the heavy ice flows on the Platte had nearly uprooted some of the posts, and there was danger that their few cattle might wander into the river.

Kristina put on her heavy jacket and, with a call to her dog, left the house. She heard the cranes calling in the far distance, but the birds were much too wary to have ever allowed her to approach them, so she scarcely gave them a second thought.

Overhead, a skein of geese was making its way downstream, and their V-shaped pattern reminded her of an arrowhead she had found on the riverbank just a few days before.

Suddenly, her dog began an excited barking, just as she was reaching the river. It seemed to be directed toward a pile of gray debris washed up against the fence, perhaps a dead possum that had drowned in the water the night before. Coming closer, she saw that it had feathers rather than hair, and was apparently a dead crane. Yet the dog was acting slightly frightened of the object, which seemed to be weakly struggling to break free of the wires. Rushing ahead and wading into the water, Kristina reached down and lifted the soggy mess into her arms, carefully pulling away the strands of wire that had encircled its wings. Too weak to protest, the crane opened its eyes and through a semiconscious haze could feel itself being carried away.

With a cry of concern, Kristina said, "Oh, it's a wild crane, and its wing is all bruised and bleeding." With that, she gathered her jacket around the bird to hold it securely, and hurried back to the house just as rapidly as she could run, with her dog following closely behind.


Platte Valley Spring

The enveloping warmth of the girl's body and heavy coat brought the crane out of his deathly sleepiness, and he vaguely knew he was being brought into a closed place, and being covered by soft blankets beside a warm stove. He didn't try to raise his head, and he limply let his wings be extended as the girl's father examined him closely. The old man carefully tested each wing for possible broken bones, and ran his hand along the bird's body and legs.

"Es ist ein wild Kranich he said, half to himself, for he was trying to avoid speaking German in the presence of his daughter. Turning to her, he said, "I think it has no broken bones, but its skin is torn and it has ein wunde on the arm."

"Can I keep it please, Papa? I promise to look after it and keep it with the chickens in the chicken coop, so it won't cause you any trouble. I'll catch grasshoppers for it and it won't eat any of the chickens' food."

The old man looked closely at his daughter. Her eyes were shining with excitement, and her face had a light that he hadn't seen since her brothers and mother had died of cholera the fall before, when she had barely escaped with her own life.

"Only as long as it is sick. When it is well, you must let it go, so that it can join the other Kranichs. It can only live happily in the wild, for that is the only life it has known."

"I promise, Papa." Kristina joyously lay her head down to touch the crane's soft back feathers, then quickly ran off to look for some ointment to put on its bruised wing and scratches.

When she returned, the crane was trying to stand up, but he was still too weak, and soon collapsed in an awkward jumble of legs and feet. Kristina couldn't help but laugh at his clumsiness, and decided that the bird should be placed in a tall wooden box that had once served for packing her clothes on the way west, and later had been turned sideways in order to serve as a stool. At the bottom of the box she arranged an old blanket to form a nestlike cup, and gently placed the bird inside.

"Now, I must try to find some food for it," she thought. She knew that there were no insects out yet, and decided that she would have to feed it some of the chickens' cracked grain after all. Running out to the small frame chicken coop, she filled a cup with the grain, and brought it back to the house, where she poured some of it out in front of the bird's bill. At first the crane did not seem to pay any attention, but as a small beetle that had been among the seeds began to scurry away, the crane looked down, made a tentative peck at the little black insect, and realized that the other objects were soft and edible. Slowly he began to eat, much to the girl's delight.

Kristina spent all of that day with the crane, except when her father called her away to help with the supper chores. There were still no schools in the area for her to attend, and so there was nothing to draw her away from this wonderful new pet. Her dog was both shy and jealous of the new creature, which suddenly had stolen Kristina's attention. The crane raised its bill threateningly and gave a high-pitched broken call whenever the dog approached and tried to be friendly. On the other hand, whenever Kristina appeared with food, the bird would utter the same plaintive food-begging note that he used to make when one of his parents would find a morsel and let him take it from its bill.


Excerpted from "Those of the Gray Wind"
by .
Copyright © 1981 Paul A. Johnsgard.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note

Spring, 1860
North to the Flat Waters
Platte Valley Spring

Summer, 1900
Destination: Arctic
The Tundra of Igiak Bay

Fall, 1940
The Roof of the Continent
Rendezvous at Horsehead Lake

Winter, 1980
The Valley of the Sacred River
The Staked Plains


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