August 17, 2018
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Rare ‘pterodactyl’ crane attracts crowds near Maine-NH border

Shawn St. Hilaire | AP
Shawn St. Hilaire | AP
In this December 2017 photo Kevin the Sandhill crane walks along Roberts Road in Rollinsford, N.H.
By Staff, New Hampshire Public Radio

ROLLINSFORD, New Hampshire — Rollinsford doesn’t attract many high profile visitors. It’s a rural community on the New Hampshire-Maine border, with a small downtown and modest houses along Main Street. Perhaps the quiet appeal of the place is to thank, in part, for why a rare bird has taken up residence there.

Most people’s phones are full of pictures of their kids, their dogs, their cats. Salme Perry’s skews more avian.

“This is him in the cemetery,” she says, scrolling through. “Doesn’t he look tropical?”

Like a proud parent, Perry shows off ‘Kevin’, a Sandhill crane that arrived in Rollinsford last summer, quickly winning everyone over with its indifference toward people and its preference for pickup trucks — the bird loves to stare at itself in the vehicles’ reflection.

Sandhill cranes don’t typically venture this far east. The birds are more likely to be found in the Midwest and Canada during warmer months, before migrating south come winter. Each March, hundreds of thousands of them will meet in Nebraska.

“Some people have described them as looking like pterodactyls,” says Rebecca Suomala, senior biologist at N.H. Audubon. She says while still rare, the number of sightings in the northeast is on the rise, and since 2014, there has been one nesting pair in the town of Monroe, ‘Oscar’ and ‘Olive’.

It’s not clear why Kevin, who is named after the animated bird character in Pixar’s “Up,” landed in Rollinsford, or where the bird may be from.

“It probably was looking for food. Rollinsford is home to nice fields, big open expanses,” says Sumual.

(“It,” by the way, is the appropriate pronoun. It’s difficult to distinguish male from female Sandhills at a distance, so Kevin’s sex remains unknown.)

Most days, Kevin, who stands about three feet tall and sports a dagger-like bill, is easy to locate. It’s taken up residence near an intersection on Main Street, drawing attention and birders from across New England. Rollinsford’s unofficial Facebook page includes frequent sightings, serving as a log of Kevin’s every move.

“The other day, he was strutting down the sidewalk like he owned Rollinsford,” says Beth Rose, who works in the town’s Post Office.

Kevin’s plan may not have been to become a Rollinsford celebrity. It’s possible the bird would have continued migrating south once the cold weather arrived. But Salme Perry says that was interrupted suddenly in November, when Kevin turned up with an unexplained injury.

“His leg appeared to be totally broken. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t put any weight on it. It was awful,” says Perry.

After speaking with biologists based in Florida, which is also home to a large Sandhill crane population, Perry was told the injured leg combined with an upcoming cold snap would prove fatal to Kevin.

“So I thought, well, if we catch him, we’ll probably break his wing, but that is the lesser of two evils.”

So, Salme, husband Ken, and another couple hatched a plan. They attached nets to two long poles, and attempted to sneak up on Kevin in the cemetery, one of its favorite hangout spots.

Once they caught it in the net, they would transport Kevin to a rehabilitation facility. That was the idea, at least.

“I’d say I was within about two feet of the bird, and they threw the net, and the bird flew away,” says Ken Perry. “It was a very healthy bird, except for his leg.

“Later we found out it could have really harmed the bird if we had succeeded. Someone would have gotten hurt, because that beak is like six inches long,” he says with a laugh.

Shortly after that failed mission, two things happened.

By late November, Kevin’s leg began to heal. (It may not have been broken, after all.) And second, as the temperature fell, a local woman began putting out seed for Kevin.

Sandhill cranes can handle cold conditions, but they struggle to find enough food once the snow comes. In general, wildlife experts are no fans of human intervention, but given the circumstances, nobody voiced too loud a complaint.

The bird has made that front yard and surrounding properties its home base.

“I hope he’s there this morning,” says Perry, pulling up in her Subaru.

“There he is,” she says.

Sticking out like a sore thumb, this monster of a bird is standing next to a green dumpster one property over from its source of food. It’s a construction yard with steady backhoe traffic and a pile of old tires. Kevin’s long neck is arched to the ground, pecking at the concrete.

“I don’t know if you can see — oh, I left my binoculars in the car — the crest on the head is almost like a heart shape little crown,” says Sarah Kern, an education coordinator at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, Maine, who met us in the field.

Kern, along with New Hampshire Fish and Game, are keeping an eye on Kevin, as well as relying on updates from the community.

From Kern’s point of view, Kevin is a healthy bird: alert, clean, and robust. She says when Kevin first arrived, it was sort of a cinnamon color, meaning it was likely less than a year old. Today, there’s more of a slate gray.

“That is his adult plumage,” she says. “So he’s got the pale, pale cheeks, the crest, and he’s lost his rusty feathers.”

About 20 paces away, Kevin doesn’t acknowledge our presence. It’s pecking away at a potato chip bag at the base of the dumpster.

“Are you worried that it’s lonely?” I ask Kern. This is something Salme Perry says is of major concern to residents.

“If he were lonely, he would be finding a not-appropriate mate of some sort, from a different species. They would seek out whatever they were looking for,” she says.

Kern is of the opinion that Kevin is healthy enough at this point that it could go out and find what it wants, be that a mate or a different source of food.

Come spring, it may do just that. But otherwise, the bird seems content.

Rollinsford may not meet everyone’s needs, but for now at least, it is definitely meeting Kevin’s.

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