MONTE VISTA, Colo. — So the swallows have come back to San Juan Capistrano, eh? Thousands of the dainty little creatures are making their annual pilgrimage to the old mission once more, are they? Well, put down that bucket of soapy water and stop hosing off your windshield for a few moments and read about some real birds.
Sandhill cranes, to be specific. Big, monster birds. Eight feet tall. Sixty-five pounds each. Wingspans of 32 feet. Eat jack rabbits and young elk. Beaks powerful enough to snap barbed wire; drag down the fence posts, too. Drive the cattle right off the ranch. Birds so massive they can . . .
OK, sorry. Someone would probably check on things like that and write a letter and, well, all hell would break loose, so let's do that one over.
Actually, the cranes are about four feet tall. Weigh about 12 pounds each. Wingspans of six feet. Eat grass.
But the point here, I'm almost certain, is that if you're going to make a fuss about birds showing up someplace every year, why not pick a bird other than one from the Tweety category? Why not pick a bird you can at least see before it lands on you? A bird big enough that when it does you-know-what on your windshield you can hear a \o7 thud\f7 .
That's what the folks in this tiny southern Colorado town figured. More or less. For decades, gigantic flocks of cranes have used the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge as a stopover on their spring and fall migration along the North American Flyway. Mostly sandhills. But mingled in are the nearly extinct whooping cranes--stunning, five-foot-tall white birds with black trim.
And so, 11 years ago, the townsfolk, who spend nearly all their time either planting or digging up potatoes, came up with Crane Fest. Well, actually it was--as odd as this might sound--the Chamber of Commerce that devised the shameless selling of the idea to lure tourists.
Nevertheless, Crane Fest was born. And the townsfolk have just gone head over heels for the festival--to some degree. They paint cranes on their storefront windows. They hold pancake breakfasts. They . . . did we mention that they paint cranes on their storefront windows?
They also run bus tours through the wildlife refuge. And during Crane Fest '94, which ended Sunday after an oh-so-brief four-day run, those buses were packed with visitors. Crane people. An estimated 5,000 crane people.
What kind of people?
Let's just say that Crane Fest organizers likely have never had to throw anyone off a bus for smoking pot.
The buses, ranging from old school buses to \o7 really \f7 old school buses, cruise the refuge's dirt roads as the passengers \o7 crane\f7 their necks searching for some of the nearly 10,000 birds.
When not watching for cranes, most are rubbing their eyes and moaning in pain. That's a fairly common ramification of having a set of binoculars pressed firmly against the eye sockets when an old school bus drops into a three-foot pothole.
Leading one tour during Crane Fest '94 was college student Jackie Smith, a young woman who knew very little about cranes and had never even been on the wildlife refuge before. You knew all this because of what she said as the tour began:
"Hi. My name is Jackie Smith. I know very little about cranes and, actually, I've never even been on the refuge before."
Satisfied that the tour director knew far less about the whole thing than they did, the crane people settled into their rock-hard bus seats. Quickly, they were rewarded for their suffering; just a hundred yards into the refuge, a huge school of cranes nibbled the grass.
School? Did we say \o7 school\f7 of cranes?
Sorry again. Better let a professional handle this.
"There," shrieked Miss Smith. "There's a big herd of cranes in the field.'
Honest. She said \o7 herd\f7 .
The crane people started laughing and, for the next 90 minutes, several refused to let go. When Miss Smith mentioned that elk also live on the refuge, one man howled: "Oh, probably a whole \o7 flock \f7 of elk."
Miss Smith, who volunteered her time to help out Crane Fest, smiled at the taunting. But it was apparent in her eyes that at least a small part of her brain was actively wondering what the penalty is in Colorado for slamming a school bus window shut on a 70-year-old man's head.
The tour continued.
And soon it became apparent that this was Crane Central. Mecca. At every turn, to the passengers' delight, hundreds of sandhill cranes appeared. Some fed on the wild grasses. Some stood still, acting as sentries against the coyotes and eagles and other predators that stalk them on the marshlands. Some mated. (The cranes, not the passengers.)
Amid one group of sandhills, a whooping crane stood, head held high, searching the mountain plateau for any sign of danger. (You'd likely do that, too, if there were only 16 humans left on Earth just a few decades ago. The whooping crane population now stands at about 200, still teetering on the edge of extinction.)
Soon the bus rolls again, leaving behind the lone whooper. But the sandhill show continued, the birds appearing at times in huge waves, a fact most certainly appreciated by festival organizers.
"Can you imagine all the planning and advertising we do and the cranes don't show up?" asked a Chamber of Commerce rep. "There wouldn't be much to show these people."
Ah, nonsense. There's always the town's potato-storage facility, with hundreds of thousands of potatoes piled inside a really big shed. As a matter of fact, tours of the spud shed were officially added to this year's fest.
Not today, thank you.
Maybe we'll come back next year and see if Jackie Smith can show us that big \o7 herd\f7 of potatoes.
Four-foot-tall sandhill cranes stop off in Monte Vista, Colo., during their spring and fall migrations.