Dayton O. Hyde
With a new introduction by [[Gretel Ehrlich]].
On a wilderness ranch in southern Oregon nearly a century ago, Dayton Hyde dove into a rushing river to rescue the threatened nest of a sandhill crane. The egg saved from the nest hatched into a bird, and also into an amazing story.
"Sandy" the crane grew up in Hyde's household as a member of the family and had to be taught she was really a bird. Hyde served as parent, companion, dietitian, even flight instructor to Sandy, and eventually watched over her mate and fledglings as well. Over the years, he had to learn a lot about sandhills. In return, the cranes taught him quite a bit about what it is to be wild.
More than an animal story, Sandy is the true account of an individual who dedicated himself to saving an endangered species. Hyde shares his totally charming, often hilarious stories of Sandy and the other wild pets, showing us how one man's heroic act to save an unhatched egg blossomed into a lifetime of conservation activities.
First published over 30 years ago, Sandy contains a message more urgent today as civilization sprawls without regard for wilderness. It shows what private landowners can do to help wildlife conservation — that ranches, when run with an understanding of whole ecosystems, can serve as miniature wildlife sanctuaries that address the concerns of ranchers and environmentalists alike.
About the author
Dayton Hyde is a photographer, essayist, and author of 12 books including Sandy and Don Coyote.
Read more about this author
Deep in the forests and meadows of the Fremont National Forest north of Klamath Falls in south-central Oregon, a young cattle rancher named Dayton O. Hyde went bird-crazy. Sandy is the story of how he fell in love with Sandhill Cranes and worked to save them from extinction in the 1950s when the ravages of civilization had diminished their population and put them on the endangered species list.
Grus Canadensis, the Sandhill Crane is a large, long-necked marsh bird with a bald red crown, and a gray and rust body graced by a spray of wing feathers. Its long legs are the color of charcoal. Cranes wade through marshes eating young shoots and small creatures, across prairies hunting for grasshoppers, and over hummocky tundra eating insects. They mate for life and often travel in pairs. But it is their haunting, trilling cry — garoo-a-a, garoo-a-a — both lonely and comforting, that links us to them.
Sandy is a first-person account of that intimate engagement between human and bird. Hyde served as savior, mother hen, parent, flight instructor, and companion to the many birds who lived with him and his family at Yamsi, a wilderness ranch at the headwaters of the Upper Williamson River. No account is quite like it: Hyde observes and notates crane behavior with great fidelity and self-effacing humor. Sandy is a comedy of manners, a love letter to all birds and bird lovers, and a prayer for strength in the heroic measures we must all take to preserve the marshes, bogs, forests, grasslands, and rivers where these great birds thrive.
It all began one early spring evening during supper in the early 1950s at Hyde's wilderness ranch, when an old Indian cowhand mentioned a floating nest that was about to be washed away by the swelling spring river. The nest was attached to a barbed wire stung across the water ad held two Sandhill Crane eggs. That night the rains came and the South Fork rose in flood. Hyde couldn't sleep and waited anxiously for dawn. He walked out across the wet meadows to the river. Reading the water, all he could see was "a sullen white-capped torrent." Then something caught his eye. It was the Sandhill Crane hen "half submerged in the rushing sea, feathers driven askew by the current, silver gray against the clay brown of the river, eyes bewildered but determined, ready to go down with her nest."
It was then that Hyde acted as few of us would; he took off all his clothes, laid them on the snowy bank, and jumped into the frigid water. He almost drowned twice: "Clutching a passing cake of ice," he wrote, "I held for a moment, trying to rest as the current whirled my body about and swept me down towards the nest." The crane hissed at him, defending two unhatched eggs. As the nest disintegrated, Hyde grabbed the eggs. The crane lifted off and flew away, and Hyde made for shore. He hurried home with the one good egg (the other was dead) and popped it in a homemade incubator.
There began an avian love affair that continues today, inspiration for this engaging and affectionate book about the many cranes who took up residency at Yamsi, and the lush mountains and rivers of south-central Oregon where Hyde and his burgeoning family (human as well as avian) flourished.
Hyde is a man who can whistle a pigmy owl in, who can swoop up a baby porcupine into his arms without getting quills in his hands, who has nursed calves and rabbits, incubated Sandhill Crane eggs, fed children, and performed the usual ranching chores of fixing fences and tractors, harnessing a team, feeding cattle in winter, training young horses, and moving cattle from pasture to pasture with the seasons. But throughout, his eyes were always lifting to the sky, that stage whereon — to his mind — the most important enactment of the natural world took place: the coming and going of birds. Though a self-professed crane-man, he didn't care what kind of birds came. He loved them all.
Hyde was deeply influenced by the nature poetry of Alfred Noyes, whose class he took at the Cate School near Santa Barbara, and by an aristocratic aunt — Margaret Biddle — a horsewoman and naturalist who stayed with him at the family ranch. Though Hyde came into ranching through their uncle, a diehard cattleman he was not. In his own words, Hyde was "a man too easily affected by the moods of nature." He is very funny when he describes, with mock dismay, his failings as a rancher. "My eyes burn, not from watching the grazing cattle, but from staring into the skies for migrating Sandhill Cranes," he writes at the beginning of his book.
The egg he had so heroically saved finally hatched and Sandy, the Greater Sandhill Crane from whom the book is named, came into being. Though the book is a compendium about many birds and animals, as well as the breathtaking country that comprised his wilderness ranch, it is the chapters about Sandy and his later hatchlings that are the most hilarious and affecting.
Hyde watched "breathlessly" as a small "egg tooth: poked at the shell. The bird hatched. When his wife, Gerdi, casually asked what the bird ate, Hyde drove sixty miles to the county library to look up an answer: there were no books on Sandhill Cranes in those days, and he rushed home to begin digging worms in his backyard. The crane grew and thrived. Photographs of the Hydes' first child standing with Sandy on the porch of their house and the two wading in a plastic pool show graphically how Sandy is soon the taller of the two. At maturity she was five feet tall with a wingspan of six feet.
All was well except for one thing: "She had become a crane in everything but her concept of herself — which as, of course, that she was human, " Hyde writes. Sandy had imprinted on him and the two became inseparable. He tried to teach her how to fly, flapping his elbows and running across the yard as Sandy followed. Then one day, she accidentally lifted into the air. She was free, but then again, she was in love with Hyde: she always came back.
Though cranes are described as "birds of loneliness," Sandy proved to highly sociable. She loved outings with her human family and every year, when they went to Palo Alto for Christmas, Sandy went along, gazing at the passing scenery from the front seat. At the ranch, she supervised everything, often creating chaos when they were working cattle. Mischievous, she untied people's shoes, tore the buttons off their shirts, grabbed dogs' tails while they were sleeping.
After a few years, it was decided that Sandy ought to have a mate. A large male crane came courting and soon Red King was part of the family. There were new eggs to incubate and hatch and every one of the hatchlings imprinted on Hyde. An orphaned swan was added to the family, Whooping Cranes came and went, and at the same time, Dayton and Gerdi had more children. While the cattle operation went to hell, Hyde was "a digger of earthworms, a slicer of raw, wet liver, a referee between little roughnecks, a procurer for insatiable gourmands, a father, a mother, a psychoanalyst for the emotionally unstable, and just plain slave, servant, and fall guy." A platoon of birds followed Hyde everywhere. He wrote, "We did everything in sevens."
Scenes of great hilarity continue. When Walt, a bowlegged, hard-living old buckaroo came looking for a job at Yamsi, Hyde was caught performing his daily pas de deux with Sandy and her young ones. Embarrassed, but undeterred, Hyde hoped that Walt would overlook this eccentricity and stay on. Despite being held prisoner in the outhouse by the birds, Walt came to accept them.
Pas de deux or pas de sept is perhaps the best description of this charming book. The intimacies of their comradeship are described in rich detail. Birth, childhood, love, and loss — it all happens in these pages. Some days, flapping and running with his crane-friends, Hyde seemed to be half-bird, half-man, and given the choice, would probably have opted for wings.
Throughout the book, it is clear that the curiosity went both ways. The birds could be seen flying around the second-story window of the ranch house, peering in to see what the humans were doing. They rode in the station wagon to town when Hyde went in to get supplies; they attended every human activity with vigilance and pleasure. Then one day, as winter was coming on, the young of Sandy and Red King flew away — the migratory restlessness had taken over.
For seven months, Hyde waited for them, his eyes searching the sky. Reports of cranes came in from northern California, but they were found to be herons. Finally, a sighting was reported in the newsletter of the local Audubon Society. They had been found near Bodega Bay, then taken to the Fleishaker Zoo in San Francisco. Hyde drove as fast as he could. At the zoo, he called to the birds: "Then they spotted me. Shrieking wildly, they left the other groups and flung themselves at the wire between us. A short, swarthy man in a knitted cap stared in disbelief. 'Say, mister,' he said excitedly. 'Them Birds knows you.'"
Through rush hour traffic, Hyde, his car full of cranes, began his trip home. When a cop stopped him, Hyde replied coolly to his inquiries: "we're greater Sandhill Cranes and it's spring. We're migrating north." The cranes shrieked with delight in agreement, and after some confusion, they continued on. The toll gate gave them trouble, Hyde reported. Every time he handed the gate man a quarter, one of the birds tried to steal it. The toll-taker finally waved them through, but Hyde, always a mon of honor, threw the quarter out of the window at the toll booth and drove north.
One might wonder at Gerdi's patience throughout, raising children while Dayton played with the birds. The book goes on to describe the rivers and forests that were part of Yamsi, and remnant culture of the first people who lived there-Native Americans-and the ways in which we must preserve wet lands and open country to accommodate what hyde makes us see as the large, extended family of birds, animals, and humans.
Hyde reminds us of the senseless war between environmentalists and ranchers, agriculture and the public, when solutions, not conflict, are desperately needed to save both habitats and species. Both sides need to do their homework. Throughout the book, we learn the ways in which ranch life engenders both learning and patience. Ranches, when run with an understanding of whole ecosystems and an eye toward maintaining the health of the whole, not simply for the financial value of production, can serve as natural sanctuaries for wildlife. Ranches are miniature societies that can be inclusive: the Hyde family unit expanded to include lonely cowboys, summer workers, birds, horses, dogs, porcupines, deer, elk, beaver, fish, and cattle with a sense of equality that runs through all sentient beings.
Sandy was originally published in 1968 by Hyde as "the true story of the rare Sandhill Crane that joined our family." More than three decades later, the book is still a treasure: unpretentious, tenderhearted, funny, idiosyncratic, but above all, a reminder of how this one man's heroic act to save an unhatched egg multiplied into a lifetime of conservation activities that extended far beyond the avian world. since then, Sandhill Cranes have been taken off the Endangered Species list. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is working to crane damage to corn and other crops. Otherwise, conflicts with farmers will grow.
All the more reason to read this book. We need Sandy, the memoir, we need Sandy, the bird, and we need more unsung, irresistible, bird-crazed heroes like Hyde. It is a pleasure to reintroduce this fine book.
Publishers Note: Birdwatchers may note that some of the common names of birds used in the book are no longer in use. We have chosen to retain the nomenclature of the original edition.
"An extremely readable book on two counts: the warm story of Hyde and his bird friends (he dances with the cranes, and they follow him around), and the matter of how such dwindling species may be preserved. No nature lover should miss it."
"Funny and charming… a good account of a big step forward in preserving wild birds."