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Vail Daily column: Learn from ancient migrators

Kim Langmaid
Special to the Daily

Autumn is the season of southbound migration, and in the Eagle Valley, we might witness one of Earth’s most ancient avian migrators – the sandhill crane. As the oldest living bird species, sandhills have been around for more than 10 million years. Imagine, since the time of their earliest migrations, the collective memory of this species would recall the emergence of the Rocky Mountains, the uplift of the Colorado Plateau and the carving of the Grand Canyon.

There are 15 species of cranes around the world, and they all established their niche on the planet just after the extinction of dinosaurs. Of all the species of cranes, the sandhills, with their 6-foot wingspan, are the most abundant. Like bears, coyotes and humans, sandhills are also omnivorous. They mostly eat plants and insects, but sometimes they eat small mammals and reptiles. Food is what makes them migrate and they spend more than half of their lives up in the air.

Every autumn, sandhill cranes make their annual journey south, from the Northern Rockies to New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico, and along their journey they rest at certain places in massive congregations. Parties of tens of thousands of birds take place at ancient staging areas, and one of them is the San Luis Valley, just a few hours drive south of here. This amazing wonder of nature, where I’ve seen these giant birds spread their wings and perform seasonal rituals together, has been recorded in petroglyphs that were etched 2,000 years ago.



The San Luis Valley is bordered on the east by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and the little town of Crestone. This is a magical and spiritual kind of place – a setting in alignment with the ancient gatherings of mysterious birds. Because of their migratory nature, humans around the world consider cranes “the birds of heaven,” intermediaries and messengers between human worlds and spirit worlds. Hopi Indians perform a crane dance symbolizing the cycle of life. And in the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi, the crane stance is a symbolic pose representing balance, as we live our lives in both physical and spiritual realms. Some sources say that our American peace sign was originally designed off of a Hopi symbol derived from the footprint of a crane.

As the oldest living bird species, whose cosmopolitan perspective and annual migration inspire cultures around the world, the crane calls forth our own autumn vigilance. Observing the seasonal migrations of sandhill cranes as they make their way south across the skies of Eagle Valley may remind us of our own sense of humanity, and of the collective memory of our own species. Humans have been around a mere 200,000 years in comparison to the crane’s 10 million years. What can we learn from these cranes that have survived though several rounds of global climate change and geologic upheavals?



I don’t have the answers, but that’s what makes it so much fun to pause and wonder. Listen and look for the cranes this autumn. What does it mean to live a life so linked with the seasons? To have an instinct so tied with the tilt of the Earth? As we imagine and create our own human ways into the future, we can find some lessons in nature. Science is one way we create knowledge and navigate our way forward. What if we marry this science with lessons from nature? Like from the crane – of what it means to live a life balanced between air and land, inspired by spirit yet grounded on soil beneath our feet?

Kim Langmaid is the founder and senior education consultant at Walking Mountains. She welcomes you to send your insights on learning, science and nature to kiml@walkingmountains.org.


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