Thursday, April 24, 2008

Memories of Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes
This seems to be wildlife week at Letter from Here. I like to take a camera with me on my noon walk, but sometimes it's the wrong camera. A couple days ago I took a DSLR with a telephoto zoom with me, because I hoped to see some Sandhill Cranes. No such luck -- all I saw was a couple of woodchucks. Yesterday I decided to leave the big camera behind, and -- of course -- there were cranes. All I had was my wide-angle point-and-shoot with the short telephoto. So this is not nearly as detailed as I would like, and it's cropped out of a much larger image.

It's hard not to be captivated by these magnificent birds, with their haunting, prehistoric cry. Most but not all Sandhills migrate from the arctic tundra to the Platte River. They're unusual among migratory birds in that they find their way not by celestial or magnetic navigation, but by memory -- a memory so accurate that it guides a pair back to exactly the same nest in the arctic tundra where they hatch their young, year after year, and within months begin teaching them the same route.
They converge on the river at winter's end as they have for eons, carpeting the wetlands. In this light, something saurian still clings to them: the oldest flying things on earth, one stutter step away from pterodactyls. As darkness falls for real, it's a beginner's world again, the same evening as that day sixty million years ago when this migration began.
That passage is from the novel, The Echo Maker, a haunting meditation on human and animal memory by MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winner Richard Powers -- a book that begins with the great birds' migration.

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