A Beautiful Reason For You to Care About Cranes

Nothing grabs your attention like a good story. People love stories and finding a connection to others. We want a reason to care.  After talking with Kathy Grant, one of the event organizers for the Sandhill Crane Festival, I found a connection to the sandhill cranes that surprised me. It turns out these beautiful birds have stories to tell that I care about, that most people care about, and that we can relate to. I didn’t know much about the cranes before talking with Kathy. I knew they were beautiful, with their long necks, long legs and huge wings, and I knew they were in Lodi during the cooler months, and that was about it. What I didn’t understand, is why so many people flocked to Lodi for the Sandhill Crane Festival. I assumed there must just be a big bird watching community in surrounding areas, but after talking to Kathy Grant, I understand it. You don’t need to be a bird watcher to appreciate the sandhill cranes. You just need to love stories. I’m so glad I spoke to Kathy because I will never look at these beautiful birds the same way.

“When I was pulled in for the festival, that’s when I realized how little I knew about the birds,” said Kathy. Kathy was pulled in to be part of the steering committee when the previous City Manager, Blair King, and the City of Lodi saved the festival. “So I started volunteering with Fish and Wildlife. They have a program to volunteer to give tours and watch fly ins and that’s not just during the festival time. That’s October through February we are hosting these evening tours and they’re spectacular.” She started going on these tours to learn more about the birds, and she walked away with a lot more than a few bird facts. “My soul is rekindled,” explained Kathy in regards to being out in nature and watching the birds flying in. “There’s an element of beauty there you don’t get in life in a lot of other places. You go out there, you take a deep breath, and it’s a primordial beauty. It’s just old California. It’s absolutely beautiful. Then you watch the birds come in and they’re loud and they’re excited. If you’ve done it enough, like I have, there’s a cycle where this is a seasonal change that I really look forward to.” Kathy’s words started a painting a picture. Just hearing her describe the tranquility brought  a wave of calm over me. “The beauty just fills me. It fills my heart and soul.”

“I learn a lot from the birds,” Kathy continued. “They’re happy birds. They love to dance, and that’s what we should be doing, dancing.” There’s a video online of the cranes dancing; it’s one Kathy often shares with students when she goes to classrooms. If you look it up you can watch the cranes hopping around, dancing and spreading their wings, and you can hear their calls. “They’re real clumsy when they’re landing and they hop around and then they’re just like doing their thing. They must be communicating, talking about whatever. They’re not all business. That’s how I want to be right? Not all business.” “What’s your favorite thing about the cranes?” I asked. I was so intrigued by the fact they dance that I wanted to hear more. “That’s a good question,” Kathy paused. “I think their gregariousness and their faithfulness for life. So they mate for life. I’ve been married a long time so I really appreciate my old bird, my old man. We know each other really well. We know our routines. The birds are a good role model or reminder.”

“I like their sounds too. They have a very loud trumpet call and you can hear it from two miles up. So if they’re flying over head you can hear them when they’re calling.”  If you watch the video of the cranes dancing, you’ll also hear their call. Sound has a way to bring back memories, and as I heard the birds calling, it reminded me of living on the outskirts of Lodi and the peaceful, early morning jogs I used to take along the canal during the cooler months. Their calls aren’t like listening to geese, it’s much calmer and soothing. “And then they’re absolutely gorgeous,” continued Kathy. “If you and I went out there today and we had good binoculars, we could see the birds still have mud on them from where they did their nest making up in Northern California and Southern Oregon. They get mud on their feathers, it’s this iron oxide, brown color. They get mud on their belly feathers and their chest feathers. Once the rains come, that will all wash off and by January and February they’re all white birds. Grey and white birds. So I like that part where each month there’s a change in them, they’re almost like a different bird.”  

There was so much more about the birds than I ever appreciated. It’s probably because I’m a young parent, but what Kathy said that drew me in the most was the analogy between parent cranes and us. “There’s greater sandhill cranes and there’s lesser sandhill cranes, the smaller ones. The smaller ones fly all the way down from Nome, Alaska. It takes them two months- two stinking months of flying! And they're bringing with them their colt. If they raised their nestling, it hatched out last May. It’s up and it’s this little tiny peeping bird and it grows. Then by the end of July they’re on their way and they’re flying. They’re coming back here to the same place. And this is the cool part, they land in just about the same place every year. So that colt that they raised up, that new baby, they don’t know the way. They have no idea how to get down here, so it’s that parent who’s showing them the fly route. And then they get down here and land in the same place and now that new baby colt knows. The parents are teaching them the way, how to get down here. It’s just like when we’re raising our kids and teaching them where to go and how to get through life; that’s what you’re seeing here with these cranes. That’s what they’re doing.” Can you imagine watching a fly in and seeing a mom crane and baby crane and knowing that you have something in common with that mama bird? And the sheer amazement that this parent bird could lead their baby bird on a two month journey when some days we can barely get our kids through a trip to Target? We teach our kids the way so hopefully, one day they can be independant and navigate through life themselves. Just like the birds, we’re showing them how to eventually “leave the nest.”

What do we have in common with a bunch of birds? The thing that matters most. We have family. We have our mates, our better halves, and we have our babies who we have to raise. We all instinctively love to dance. Even if you say you don’t enjoy dancing, I challenge anyone reading this to put on a good Queen song and not tap your hands or feet. Kathy and I also talked about some of the specifics about the history of Sandhill Crane Festival, especially the huge economic boost it gives our city, but I didn’t resonate with all that the way I did when Kathy started sharing these stories. These stories about the cranes are what made me care. “The general public generally knows very little about the birds,” said Kathy, “But if you get with a good docent, a good storyteller, they open your eyes. And that’s what true interpretation is all about. You think, okay birds, they’re big birds, big deal. But then you go listen to these stories about them and you change.” I’m so grateful for this interview because I’ll never look at the cranes the same. A good storyteller can connect you to anything, even birds, and as humans, that’s what we crave. Stories like this help you feel connected to nature and like you’re part of something bigger. If you have a chance to visit the Sandhill Crane Festival, do it because those docents are there to make you feel connected, and as Kathy demonstrated, they’re great storytellers.