Being unpracticed with bird identification, I tend to assume any big birds flying in formation are geese. We have plenty, so that’s a reasonable guess. One evening the Canada geese winging their way south were unusually impressive. Their bodies glowed in the setting sun. Why had they never looked that way before? Was it the angle of the light?
Just days later I learned that our area is seeing a resurgence of sandhill cranes, and realized that the marvelous sight in the sky was cranes rather than geese. The photos that I could find looked exactly like what I had seen.
Our county naturalist reports that sandhill cranes had stopped breeding here way back in 1890, and were almost nonexistent for over a hundred years. But in 2020, there were more than 94,000 in the sandhills east of the Mississippi River. There’s even a breeding ground right nearby on — get this — Crane Rd. Two whooping cranes were just spotted there too.
The sure movements of nature’s creatures are a spectacular thing, maybe particularly remarkable to me because my own navigation system is so imperfect. My photo of sunrise over the Mississippi throws me off because it looks to me—an Illinoian—like a sunset: Even though I live hours away from the great river, it’s hard to reorient my internal GPS for a brief stay on the Iowa side. When I travel up and down the west side of the river, I keep getting north and south mixed up.
Normally the sound of birds migrating south makes me melancholy, since it reminds me that winter is coming. But surely their journey is not a sad thing, but a wondrous reminder of God’s mysterious creatures, the turning of the seasons, and our own internal settings.
What would cause us to take flight for a faraway land? For the magi, it was a star, whose celestial light compelled them onward. Does the light of Epiphany draw us to our true destination?
It was both the simple and the wise who followed the star. Whenever we gaze at the darkening sky, we can be reminded of the light that awakens us and takes us to the place where God is revealed. When we are changed by our encounter with the Christ child, we will go home by another way. We will practice another way of living.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.