By Ken Trainor
My 16-year-old car keeps coming up with creative ways to go haywire. A small motor in the back, which once upon a time raised and lowered the car antenna (before the antenna, Viagara-like, remained stuck in the you-know-what position), could be heard whirring briefly whenever I turned off the car, thinking it was doing its appointed duty.
Only now it continued whirring, stuck in the on position. It was Sunday, so by Tuesday, the battery was dead as the proverbial doornail. An unlucky fluke.
Temporarily grounded, I had to walk to my afternoon appointment. Cold day, temps in the low 30s. A steady wind out of the north pushed me down Euclid Avenue. The sun, ablaze in a cloudless blue sky, was already listing toward the southwest horizon at 1:50 p.m. when I heard a familiar vibrato — a fluttering, croaking, birdlike sound that seemed close by. It couldn't be. On Nov. 23?
I know this sound because of an old curmudgeon with a big heart who used to hang out in Austin Gardens. Jack Levering. I struck up a conversation one day — or he struck one up with me — and then a friendship. Another fluke.
He told me about the creatures who created the sound. They passed overhead every March, heading north, right around his birthday — March 9, his birthday gift. This year, I'm told, they came through on March 6. It depends on weather conditions. Warm thermals help them attain the necessary altitude — higher than crows or gulls or even hawks. Way higher. So high you hear them before you see them.
Sandhill cranes make a lot of noise when they fly over, hundreds at a time, in vast V's. It was cold down on the ground, so it must have been really cold up there, but there they were, directly overhead, wave after wave, each V led by a single crane, the others in tight, if fluid, formation. Oak Park is located on one of their flyways, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. A fortunate fluke.
They were all business, their long necks stretched taut, taking full advantage of vast wing spans. And they were really moving. They could have made it to southern Illinois by nightfall.
When we think of birds flying south, we think of geese or robins. But Canada geese have been wintering here for decades, creating an unholy mess near every patch of grass they graze. And on this frigid late-November day, I found dozens of robins bob-bob-bobbin' along in Scoville Park. They, too, seem to be finding enough forage to last through the winter.
But sandhill cranes are the real thing, a mass migration, driven south by a cold north wind, guided by unerring instinct, a kind of inbred genetic memory. We, the landbound, find them thrilling, a giant flying chorus of bleating hearts, setting a breakneck (so to speak) pace, pointed toward the future but recycling the past.
A metaphor of transcendence to pedestrians with dead-as-doornail batteries, symbols of freedom, but really they're just getting the hell out of Dodge with winter nipping their tail feathers. They're locked into this annual circuit that forces them south, then seduces them north again each March. They aren't free, like we are, to say, "I think I'll winter here this year."
According to the birders who track such phenomena, I only saw a portion of the Tuesday's flyover. Dale Bowman, an outdoors columnist who writes a blog for the Sun-Times, quoted a reader from the Southeast Side, who wrote, "A skein of 75 Sandhills flew over a few minutes after 9 this morning. They were very high up, in a brittle blue sky, heading south by southeast."
"That's it," replied Bowman, "fall's over."
According to the Prairie State Outdoors website (prairiestateoutdoors.com), birders reported 12,413 cranes passing over Greene Valley Forest Preserve on Nov. 17, 2008 and 14,000 on Nov. 19, 2006. That's a lot of counting, but there are worse ways to spend a day.
I probably wouldn't have seen any of it if my battery hadn't died. A benevolent fluke and a vivid reminder that it's not such a small world after all. A lot happens right under our noses and way, way over our heads. We're just one small part of the action.
I can't wait till the first week of March. By then my car should be acting up again.