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Our Favorite Bird

I have a theory. I think we have a favorite bird. I don’t mean each one of us individually. I mean all of us as a community.

Sure, I can say that my favorite bird is the Indigo Bunting. And you can say that yours is the Peregrine Falcon. And our friend Ava’s is the Roseate Spoonbill. And her brother Aidan’s is the Greater Roadrunner. I get how that works. But I’m also saying that we—all of us as a group—have a favorite.

Every year, right around now, I’m reminded of how we’re all brought together by our favorite bird. Check out this screen-capture from ABA Birding News from earlier in the month:

This is a typical run of posts to COBirds, featuring reports of unusual birds, announcements of field trips, news from birding hotspots, the daily RBA, and so forth.

The preceding is from COBirds, the statewide listserv for my home state of Colorado. I consider this screen-capture to be perfectly typical: diverse coverage; understandable emphasis on rarities; location reports; an RBA posted daily; a smattering of public service announcements… Thus: Little Gull, Parasitic Jaeger, and Arctic Tern (rarities); Northern Parula, Broad-winged Hawk, and Red-necked Grebe (lesser rarities, but still nice); a Rabbit Mountain field trip and The Big Sit! (upcoming events); Chatfield, Ramah, and Horsetooth Rez (location reports); and the Colorado Rare Bird Alert (thanks, Joyce, for posting it every morning).

So it was a earlier in the month. So it will be in the days ahead. So it will be a month from now, and so on and so forth.

But not right now. At this writing, the list has been felicitously hijacked by our favorite bird:

This is what COBirds looks like once a year, during the annual fall overflight of Sandhill Cranes.

This is what COBirds looks like once a year, during the annual fall overflight of Sandhill Cranes.

When we see and hear Sandhill Cranes flying over, we have to share the news. We must. We cannot help ourselves.

Each year in early to mid-October, Sandhill Cranes migrate south straight down the I-25 urban corridor in Colorado. The vast bulk of the flight takes place during the course of just a day or two, sometimes just a single afternoon. They don’t land. They just keep on going.

There’s nothing rare about this phenomenon. The cranes aren’t queried by eBird. You don’t have to write them up for the Colorado Bird Records Committee. You probably already have them on your year list. Objectively speaking, they’re not nearly as notable as Little Gull, Parasitic Jaeger, or Arctic Tern—not even Northern Parula, Broad-winged Hawk, or Red-necked Grebe.

Yet they elicit in us a sense of corporate awe that no other bird does. Why? Why is that? I think it’s because the drama plays out in plain view (and in plain hearing) no matter where we are or what we’re doing. Those other birds—Parasitic Jaegers and such—well, you have to go birding to encounter them. You have to be engaged in the act of birding. But not with the cranes. They force you to take note, no matter what you’re doing: driving to work, playing ball, arguing with your kids… In my case, I was sitting in the office, working on Birding magazine, and I could hear them. So I ran outside and caught a glimpse of them as they disappeared over the rooftops across the street.

That’s not the full story. For one thing, I was aware that the phenomenon was under way, thanks to all the posts to COBirds. But I’d also just gotten this text from my daughter:

Cranes 03

All across Colorado’s Front Range metro region, birders and non-birders texted one another with up-to-the-minute updates on a spectacular (but not unusual) overflight of Sandhill Cranes.

Check this out: She sent it from my spouse’s phone, and she did so during a competitive soccer match. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t pull me from the proverbial burning building during a soccer game. But she had to text me about the cranes. It was an emergency.

We have to tell each other about the thrilling spectacle of cranes—glorious and loud, wild and free—flying straight over the biggest metropolitan center in the entire six-state region. They command us to do so. When they fly over, they’re saying something like this:

Listen, all you humans below. This is it. This is the real deal. This is real life, happening in real time, right now. You have no control over this. You can’t plan this event. We cranes, we’ve got places to go. We’re not going to land, like some Parasitic Jaeger or Arctic Tern, eager to be seen. With us cranes, you don’t get the chance for a customized birding experience, on your own terms, in your own time. Nope, this is it! Right now! This is as good as it gets. Stop what you’re doing. Look at us! Listen to us! We demand it, and you will comply. Now go tell everybody else that that we’re up there, right now, this very instant. Spread the word: send texts, go online, shout from the rooftops if you must. THIS IS IT.


By the time this post appears at The ABA Blog, it will be all over. We’ll have resumed our regularly scheduled lives: our work, our commutes, our families, and, as time allows, Parasitic Jaegers and Arctic Terns. But for a while, a brief while, we were all brought together by something more wondrous than the bluest Indigo Bunting or pinkest Roseate Spoonbill, the most enchanting roadrunner or the fastest Peregrine. We were brought together by the urge, the need, the very real need, to share with one another the revelation that the greatest blessings in this life are simply there, right there, no matter where we are or who we are.

Sandhill Cranes over the author’s front yard, Saturday, Oct. 17, 5:19 pm Mountain Daylight Time. These aren’t rare birds. They didn’t trigger an eBird rarity bird alert. They’re not gonna get written up for the records committee. But if you were in Colorado, you had to hear about them. You had to go out in your yard and look at them. (Note: As if to make the point, these cranes flew over while the author was drafting this blog post.)


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Ted Floyd

    For birders in Ontario, according to Jody Allair, it’s Tundra Swans on migration in March. How about where you are?

    • Rick Wright

      Here in New Jersey in the fall, it’s birders’ “FOF” juncos that stuff the listserv; the counterpoint is the complaints sent to the listserv about people reporting juncos. Can’t win! But it is great to have the gray birds back for the winter.

  • Kate Steffes

    Perfect, Ted! You are so right. No wonder is my favorite time of year.

  • Eva Matthews

    I must admit, I did send a text about the Sandhill Cranes and I did yell to my significant other to run outside multiple times throughout the day. I also enjoyed the CFO Facebook comments as the cranes moved south all day. Thanks for this entertaining read.

  • Terry Bronson

    In the eastern U.S. and in Maritime and Great Lakes Canada, Double-crested Cormorants migrating south in fall provide a substitute spectacle. On a good day several thousand can be seen–wave after wave of dozens to hundreds of birds. I liken it to those old World War II newsreels of bomber squadrons passing by.

  • Bill Schmoker

    I’d also characterize this as a crossover birding phenomenon- that is, folks outside of the “birding world” enjoy and share in jaw-dropping bird movements like this. Back at work on Monday I had three non-birding colleagues comment about the weekend crane flight they witnessed. One didn’t even know what they were other than non-geese but was amazed by the spectacle. Up and down the Front Range I wonder how many “spark bird” moments happened!

  • Nicholas Komar

    I’ve always wondered why the cranes are so loud, and constantly vocalizing during these flights. Thanks to Ted, who explained it so eloquently, now I know.

    • Ted Floyd

      Correct. They’re talking to YOU, Nick, as they pass over, and they have to shout to be heard. 😉

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