Priyanka Kumar’s “Messengers from the Past” is excerpted from Conversations with Birds.
THE CROWN JEWEL OF OUR National Wildlife Refuge System, the Bosque del Apache, has been my annual pilgrimage site for a decade. The largest single population of sandhill cranes migrates to the Bosque late in the fall to overwinter along the Rio Grande. I have seen these cranes with crimson crowns in Southern California and at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia but they descend on the Bosque in staggering numbers. In the evenings, you stare at cranes with serpentine necks flying in over skies streaked rosy pink and clementine. New Mexico’s skies can be striations of color approximating infinity but these numberless flocks of cranes and geese outdo the theatrics of the sky. When the cranes begin their fairylike descent onto milky-blue sheets of water, you find yourself in a place where humans are far outnumbered by birds. You let the primal orchestra of cranes and geese remind you of the place your ancestors came from.
The refuge is ninety miles south of Albuquerque, near the quaint town of San Antonio, New Mexico. Cradled between the Chupadera and Little San Pascual mountains, the core of the 57,000-acre refuge, some 13,000 acres, sits beside the Rio Grande, at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. One winter as I explored the arroyos, cornfields, and ponds in the refuge’s North and South Loops, the cranes stood slate gray in the pale, rose-colored dusk. Their curved necks moved insistently against the grass as they foraged. There was ample food that year and they honked contentedly—a rich, rounded, baritone sound.
The cranes eat grasses such as millet that used to grow naturally and abundantly in this area. Over the last century, however, the free-spirited Rio Grande was aggressively drained and the valuable wetlands it supported, which in turn supported the cranes, were devastated. The rhizomes and roots of wetland plants are natural sources of protein and carbohydrates for cranes. The seeds of sedges and rushes offer healthy fats. Insects and crayfish, and the shells of snails and other invertebrates, as I learned at the Bosque, are a ready source of calcium. By ravaging our wetlands, we created a food desert for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and now we’re stuck growing crops for them. After whacking a whole ecosystem out of balance, we are scurrying to undo at least part of the damage we have inflicted, so as to avert the most visible cruelties that would otherwise ensue.
A ranger with a crinkled face said to me, “Last year, a ranger from a farming family in Montana changed everything here, crop-wise. Before, we had an arrangement with neighboring farmers, who would supply us with crops to feed the birds. But there was never enough food.” A crane eats a pound of corn a day, so seven thousand cranes need an impressive amount of corn. The Montana ranger assessed the food shortage and took the lead in planting the Bosque’s fields. In addition to corn, he grew triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. They had a bumper crop.
“We’ll never go back to the old way again,” the ranger said.
THE CRANES NEED EVERY CALORIE they can amass. In February, the greater sandhill cranes will embark on a spring flight to return to the northern Rocky Mountains in time for the breeding season. The lesser sandhill cranes, some 30 percent smaller than their greater cousins, will travel farther—to Alaska and as far as northeastern Siberia—to breed.
Sandhill cranes are monogamous birds; during courtship, the male valiantly tosses vegetation or mud into the air and fans its wings above the body, before dancing with abandon and letting out a unison call. Then the pair throw their heads back—the male at a deeper angle—and the female lets out two calls for each call the male emits. Lifelong pairs rely on this short, sharp unison call for relationship maintenance—it’s a pair’s shorthand to stay connected, or to alert a mate to a threat in their breeding area. Dancing, too, is used not only in courtship rituals, which are said to be infrequent in lifelong pairs, but also as a communal activity. These cranes have at least ten different types of dances and as many calls; their dances are so lively, with leaps, bows, and head pumps that I wonder whether this is why a group of cranes is also referred to as a dance or swoop of cranes.
Before nesting, the cranes paint themselves with mud and vegetation in order to blend into their landscape. They subscribe to the philosophy of slow parenting, incubating a clutch of two eggs for roughly a month and allowing their chicks up to a generous five months to fledge. One study showed that young siblings frequently grow aggressive with one another but the parents use food to mediate such conflicts. I find them to be very relatable birds.
By the time groups of cranes arrive in New Mexico in late autumn, they have molted and I see them in fresh dove-gray-and-maroon plumage. Standing with heads erect in the winter sunshine, their gleaming gray bodies and crimson crowns are painterly, with the velvety sheen of a medieval tapestry. Their aloof stance adds to their allure. In flight the very lines of a crane and its wingspan of seven feet are reminiscent of a time before ours. They are as ancient as can be, hearkening back to the Pleistocene. A ten-million-year-old crane fossil found in Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in Nebraska is said to belong to a crowned crane, a relative of the sandhills. The oldest sandhill crane fossil, unearthed in what is today Florida, is some 2.5 million years old. Some years back, I saw an exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum that explored how birds evolved from dinosaurs. “A bird didn’t just evolve from a T. rex overnight,” says Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, “but rather the classic features of birds evolved one by one; first bipedal locomotion, then feathers, then a wishbone, then more complex feathers that look like quill-pen feathers, then wings. The end result is a relatively seamless transition between dinosaurs and birds, so much so that you can’t just draw an easy line between these two groups.”
Aldo Leopold wrote about the sound of cranes: “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”
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THAT EVENING IN THE BOSQUE, we saw a gathering of sandhill cranes and snow geese unlike any other we had observed here. The water was powder blue and rose pink and multitudes of cranes and geese flew in and congregated upon the painted water to roost. Some estimates have it that at its peak, there are forty thousand geese in the refuge and half as many cranes. When I looked up, geese streaked the sky everywhere, punctuated only by the cranes flying in like robotic fairies. I drank in the ambrosial dusk as I reflected on the rasa of cranes.
The painted sky, reflected in the water, lent the scene a supernatural setting—here, one could tune in with what is transcendent in the universe, as Campbell would have said. The sun, an enormous ball of reddish mauve, flashed unabashedly into my face. Apollo the sun god is believed to have disguised himself as a crane when he visited mortals to signal that spring was coming. Two silhouetted cranes cavorted against the regal sun disk. The leggy birds now stood in the ponds where they like to roost in four to eight inches of shallow water. As twilight set in, a corresponding stillness enveloped the cranes and my heart. My arms ached from holding my toddler but I went on watching until the birds’ velvet-gray plumage at last fused with the darkening sky and the misty gray of the water.
The cranes would begin to leave next month. Most would fly north to their next major migratory stop: Nebraska’s Platte River valley, a threatened habitat in North America’s Central Flyway. Like us, they are transient visitors here. But for the sight of cranes performing their elusive dance, I may have seen all there is to see at the Bosque yet I keep returning each year. It’s as though I, too, migrate to the Bosque.
ON THE JUNE DAY WHEN OUR second baby was born, two midwives measured her head to toe, head circumference, weight, heartbeat, and the frequency with which she drank milk. It was enough to make me recall the hummingbird banding station we had volunteered at at the Audubon Kern River Preserve in our California days. Six hours later, the baby was released from the birth center. On day seven, I decided to skip her optional hearing exam; I couldn’t imagine taking my fledgling to some hearing clinic in the maze of a hospital complex.
One evening, the two-month-old baby lay on our bed, near an open window. The fall migration season was beginning. Mustached red-shafted flickers are year-round residents but they were more active now. Yellow-rumped warblers flitted from one tree to the next. A ruby-crowned kinglet hopped secretively in a juniper tree, there was a flash of yellow and black as a Scott’s oriole took cover in the crabapple, and the streaky orange of a pair of evening grosbeaks, altitudinal migrants, was visible in a mature piñon pine, the one that had to be rescued from a scale infestation. A spotted towhee trilled and I saw the baby register the sound. She turned her head to the window, then she looked back up at me, wanting an explanation.
“That’s a bird,” I said. “You just heard a bird.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Now I knew for sure that she could hear. Since then, I have seen her watch as a crow flies by or when a robin hops over to the herb bed, fishing for worms. If birds are messengers from the past, the descendants of dinosaurs, then the baby is getting acquainted with our planet’s past. At breakfast time, nary a bird flies across the backyard without eliciting an “ah” from her. At the age of one, she pointed at the birds, especially at the mourning doves that perch regularly on the telephone wires. Theodore Roosevelt wrote about this dove: “There can be no more mournful sound of unending grief than the sound of a mourning dove.” I see this bird differently. The curved shape and flutter of a mourning dove’s wings as it takes off never fail to brighten me. It’s the best shorthand reminder I have in my backyard of the otherworldly flight of cranes. In November, the cranes will return to the Bosque. In the winter, we will take our infant to the Bosque to look for dancing cranes and to listen to “the orchestra of evolution.”
“WHAT WAS THAT?” Michael put the car in reverse.
One January, we were on the Bosque’s North Loop and I wondered if Michael had just seen an accipiter at the edge of the cottonwood grove. Instead, in a clearing between the grove and a dry ditch, stood a herd of a dozen or so javelinas, Pecari tajacu. Bristly charcoal gray, with pink snouts, and across their shoulders the cream stripe that lends them the common name, collared peccary. Two juveniles broke into a run, kicking up a shower of dust, after which the portly, tailless creatures raced up a storm. They recalled the wild boars in Princess Mononoke, the Japanese animation film that pits the natural world against our brutal industrial realities. Unlike in life, in the film it is the boars who have been corrupted by greed.
I took in their feral, speckled-gray bodies. Their scent glands, under the eyes and on the back, earn them the name musk hog and the scent is used to establish a herd’s territory. A couple of babies in the herd shuffled in the dirt while some javelinas stared right at us. Our single pair of binoculars were in hot demand and exchanged hands fast, though the herd was only some thirty feet away. One javelina used its back hoof to scratch its ear. Then I made a mistake. I rarely photograph animals, believing instead in the primacy of the experience. But this time, the photographer in me was aroused and I asked Michael to get our camera from the trunk. A javelina was spooked by the sound of the trunk being shut and it ran like a streak of lightning. The others stirred and vanished into the cottonwood grove. Only two javelinas lingered, as did we, until they also left.
In the peccary family, javelinas are found as far down as South America. They are the color of stone and seem just as ancient and enigmatic. The Spanish word bosque, which means “forest” or “woodlands,” has a suggestion of the unknown. Forests are among the few places whose allure has not been stripped by the frenetic merry-go-round of civilization. That which is wild may have its fury but it also has grace. While observing the javelinas, I had sensed the tenderness within their wild coat of armor. They were curious about us, they seemed to inch toward us. Their children went on playing as the adults gazed at us, while also rightly being wary of us. I felt stirred by the sighting, but also astonished that after so many years of living in the Southwest, it was only now that I had seen a herd of javelinas.
THE NEXT MORNING AT THE BOSQUE, a fresh sight awaited. A cloud of snow geese in the sky, so many that our necks craned up and our mouths parted in silent awe.
“They look like glitter . . . so tiny and beautiful,” Mia said.
“You mean like confetti?”
“Like fish flying in the sky.”
There were hundreds, yet somehow there is no chaos when the skein flies together; the geese don’t collide into one another, instead they coexist in harmonious formations. Is the seeming chaos of nature an illusion? When the veil is drawn, we begin to see patterns and even an order that is comforting.
IT WAS PAST 5:00 P.M. and we still hadn’t left. The water was like glass, as the bright orb of the sun slipped behind the chocolate mountains. A skunk, its tail erect like a black-and- white question mark, scuttled forward along the side of a dry arroyo. Three baby-boomer photographers raced after it with the gusto of paparazzi chasing a new starlet. The skunk showed them its rear and disappeared in some brush. Pied-billed grebes floated unmolested on the placid water as the sky blushed pink. Abruptly, among the numberless cranes at the edge of a cornfield, one group opened its wings in a dance formation. At last! Oh, what an ingenious, spirited dance! One pair of dusky wings splashed open, then in a choreographed sequence, the next crane flashed its wings, and the next, in slow motion. Their movements recalled the traditional African dances I have watched over the years in Camp Mabina and later I wasn’t surprised to learn, as Paul A. Johnsgard writes, that cranes “have served as models for human tribal dances in places as remote as the Aegean, Australia, and Siberia.” Among cranes, dancing can be connected to courtship but it is also a kind of ritualized socializing that includes even aggressive behaviors, an ironing out of family and flock relationships, a reforging of community.
Just then, the snow geese, a wide band of glittering white on the cerulean water, took off. The sky sprang to life with dazzling wings tinged with black. The birds hovered above us and drifted in a cloud formation, dense and massive like Kālidāsa’s cloud messenger—who carried messages of love between two separated lovers—showering us with cosmic blessings as we left our refuge.
Priyanka Kumar’s “Messengers from the Past” is excerpted from Conversations with Birds. Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books (January 24, 2019). Copyright © 2019, 2022 by © 1991, 1998 by Priyanka Kumar. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company LLC on behalf of Milkweed Editions, milkweed.org.