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Whoop whoop!

Glimpsing one of the world’s rarest birds


Across the field on this frigid day, we watched several hundred tall gray sandhill cranes feeding, but we didn’t feel the cold. Quite comfortable behind the one-way glass of the observation tower at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, we felt only the warmth of excitement as we also spotted three special white birds, bigger and more majestic than others in the flock.

Never very common and now one of the rarest birds in North America, whooping crane numbers dipped to about 15 in the world by the 1940s. The population has rebounded to about 600 today.

Numbers of the similar sandhill crane species also dropped early in the 20th century, but now nearly 500,000 lesser sandhills and 100,000 greater sandhills migrate across North America. However, numbers remain low for some other subspecies.

The tallest birds in North America, whooping cranes stand about five feet tall, compared to sandhills at four feet. Darker gray, sandhills have bright red patches on their heads. Nearly all white, except for black wing tips, whoopers often feed with sandhills where their ranges overlap. People can only hope to see whoopers in a few places in the world, but one of them is Alabama.

“Whooping crane numbers are on the rise, but their population is still low,” says Amber Wilson with the International Crane Foundation Whooping Crane Outreach Program in Decatur. “There are two distinct migrating flocks in North America. One is the historic wild flock that travels from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas for the winter. The other migrating population is the reintroduced flock that travels from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin down to Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. There are also about 40 non-migrating birds in Louisiana and 10 in Florida.”

Fearing that disease or another catastrophe could devastate the whooping crane population in one stroke, the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org) and other groups formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. These conservationists wanted to establish a second migratory flock and did so in 2001.

“Historically there was at least one record of a whooping crane in Alabama before the reintroduction of the eastern migratory population,” says Hillary Thompson, an ICF spokeswoman. “Sandhill cranes are native to Alabama. Sandhill crane numbers were once very low, but their numbers have increased greatly over time.”

Now, these eastern birds pass through or winter in Alabama. Sandhills usually arrive at the 35,000-acre Wheeler NWR off Interstate 65 adjacent to Decatur in early November. The first whoopers typically follow a couple weeks later, but a severe cold front could push migrating birds southward. Both species generally leave the refuge in late February or early March heading northward.

“The refuge was established in 1938 as a migratory bird sanctuary,” says Teresa Adams, the Wheeler NWR supervising park ranger. “The refuge has diverse habitats, including reclaimed farmland replanted in hardwoods that provide places for more than 295 bird species, including more than 30 species of waterfowl in the winter. A few sandhill cranes started coming here about 20 years ago. In 2016-17, we had about 20,000 sandhills on the refuge. The whopping cranes started coming here in 2005 and their numbers have steadily increased. In the winter of 2016-17, we had 29 on the refuge.”

Photograph in comfort

Probably no other place on Earth provides a better place to view and photograph wild cranes, geese, ducks and other birds up close in comfort than the observation building. A short walk behind the Wheeler NWR Visitor Center, the building sits on a pond shoreline overlooking fields. In an elevated room surrounded by one-way glass, people can observe and photograph birds without sharp eyes spotting them. Photographers can also reserve an observation blind down near the pond shoreline if they wish.

“I don’t know of another place like it anywhere where people can get such a good look at the birds and stay warm in the winter doing it,” Adams says. “On some days, people can see all kinds of ducks, geese, thousands of sandhill cranes and some whooping cranes. Sometimes, the birds come right in front of the observation building. We also mounted a microphone on the building so people inside can hear the birds.”

The refuge closes many roads to motorized vehicles in the winter so people don’t chase off the birds. However, the roads remain open to hikers and bicyclists. Since the Tennessee River runs through the refuge, people can also see many bird species from boats.

People can see cranes and enjoy various exhibits, workshops, guest speakers, concerts and other activities in Decatur and on the refuge during the 2018 Festival of the Cranes, slated for Jan. 13-14. Area visitors can find any food, lodging and other necessities they need in Decatur.ν

For more about the area and the festival, call Melinda Dunn of the Decatur Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-232-5449 or 256-350-2028, or visit www.decaturcvb.org.

For information on Wheeler NWR, see www.fws.gov/refuge/wheeler or visit the Friends of Wheeler website at www.friendsofwheelerrefuge.org.

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama

Let’s hear it for the hog

Well, I’ve always heard, but I ain’t too sure,

That a man’s best friend is a mangy cur.

I kinda favor the hog myself.

How ‘bout a hand for the hog!

— Roger Miller

I read the other day that someone somewhere had done some calculations and come to the conclusion that your average American eats 28 pigs a year!

I don’t know just what, exactly, they base that figure on, but I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I and my family and most of my friends have always done our part to keep pork consumption high. We are serious about swine.

Now I can’t claim any particular expertise when it comes to pigs. I only raised one. She ate what we gave her and fattened up real nice. I don’t recall mourning her passing, but I do recall enjoying the meat.

It’s like this. On a farm everything had a purpose, and a pig’s purpose is to get eaten.

Which is why farm folks I knew never made pets out of pigs. Still, among pig raisers I recall a certain respect for the animals, and that respect was most evident at killing time.

I have witnessed only a few hog killings. They were long ago and all sorta run together now, but thinking of them as one, what I remember most was the cold and the efficiency. It was cold because, even though by then we had refrigerators, you killed hogs in winter, when there was less chance of the meat spoiling. It was efficient because, after years of practice, those doing the killing, the cleaning and the carving-up, knew what to do and how to do it.

There was not a lot of talking and socializing, with the work. Those involved were intent on getting the job done as quickly as they could and, though it may seem odd to say it, with as little inconvenience as possible to the pigs.

Now, of course, there is a certain inconvenience in getting killed. But in the killing, there appeared an acknowledgement of the significance of the pig’s sacrifice. There was no laughing, joking or kidding around the way Southerners usually do when they get together. Death was serious business. And it was not until all the pigs had become pork that the mood shifted. That’s when they divided up the meat, setting some aside for smoking, and started rendering the fat into “cracklings” for cornbread. Then there was a scramble to claim the parts that the very mention of today causes consternation in polite circles – chitlins, brains, feet, knuckles, and of course, liver and lights (if you don’t know, look it up).

My Daddy was particularly good at taking bits and pieces and making hog’s head cheese, to which country connoisseurs gave their highest praise – “ain’t a hair in it.”

Today, most people who eat those delicacies don’t even know it. They are consumed as “assorted pork parts” that are unidentifiable in potted meat, bologna, sausage, and stuff like that – which, I suppose, was figured into the 28-pig calculation.

Which is a shame, for chitlins, knuckles, liver and lights once enabled Southerners to make two pigs out of one, and in the hardscrabble South, quantity mattered.

But so did quality. Southerners learned to do wonderful things with these, the least and the leavings. Which is why I’ll take pickled pig’s feet over ground-up pork parts any day.

Yessir, “How ‘bout a hand for the hog!”

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Alabama Snapshots: Alabama Sunrises

SUBMITTED BY Tommy and Amy Spruiel, Detroit, AL

 

SUBMITTED BY Alice Barton, Marion.

 

SUBMITTED BY Cindy Prater, Danville.

SUBMITTED BY Deborah Walters, Fairhope.

SUBMITTED BY Kathy Hester, Cedar Bluff .

SUBMITTED BY Regina Sanders, Lanett.

SUBMITTED BY Sharon M. Tucker, Cullman.

 

Submit Your Images! March Theme: “Front Porches” Deadline for March: January 31.

Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124

Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

About your pet

Pets are more than treasured companions

Pets are a very important part of our lives. One in six American households own a pet. Sixty percent of Americans think pet owners lead more satisfying lives than non pet-owners. From our personal experience, they would be right! We humans started forming a bond with animals many millennia ago. From being just a tool to make our existence a bit easier, like herding dogs, pets have now taken up the role of trusted friend and companion. The history of this bond goes back a long way. A gravesite in the Czech Republic unearthed a 31,000-year-old skeleton of a dog buried with a carefully placed bone in its mouth. This skeleton was found in a human graveyard. Perhaps it is romanticizing a bit, but maybe another human like us placed the bone and shed a few tears before throwing the first handful of dirt on their beloved friend. Over 50 studies in the last few decades have demonstrated the many health bene-fits of pets. Cat owners enjoy a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk. Watching fish swim lowers blood pressure, and stroking a dog boosts the immune system. Pets provide valuable services as helpers for the blind and disabled. On top of all these herculean tasks, they also work in prisons, nursing homes and women’s shelters providing compassion and healing. The list goes on. An excellent book, Made for Each Other, by Meg Olmert is a must read on this topic. These creatures give us so much in their short lives! We bear a significant responsibility to take care of them and give them a life full of care and joy. A wonderful guideline for animals in our care is called the “five freedoms:” freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, in-jury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.

This column will appear every other month.  If you have a pet-related question of general interest, please write to Dr. G at PO Box 687, Geraldine, AL 35974.

Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works part time at Grant Animal Clinic and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

40 Years after the Kopper Kettle explosion

Eyewitness recalls blast that demolished downtown Auburn

by Lindsay Penny

A gas leak caused the explosion in January 1978 that destroyed the Kopper Kettle restaurant and several nearby businesses. Photos courtesy Auburn University archives

Jan. 15, 1978 was a quiet Sunday in downtown Auburn.

At that time, Auburn was a sleepy little village still on the cusp of the economic boom it would see years later.

The streets were empty as Jim Patterson, an Auburn student, made his way from his apartment on Thach Avenue to St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church on nearby Magnolia Avenue to catch the morning worship service.

Photos from the ground after the Kopper Kettle restaurant at the corner of E. Magnolia and N. Gay Street exploded in the morning hours of January 15th, 1978.

A second later, he hit the ground.

At 8:13 a.m., the Kopper Kettle, a restaurant located in the heart of downtown Auburn, exploded due to a gas leak, taking out several neighboring businesses and shaking the town to its core. The blast left more than 70 businesses damaged, and one small town reeling.

“I immediately fell to the ground, and when I looked up, there were huge pieces of buildings so far up in the sky, I couldn’t believe it,” says Patterson.

After the dust settled, concerned for the well-being of the church congregation, Patterson made his way through the rubble to St. Dunstan’s.

The Rev. Rod Sinclair was preparing for the 8:30 a.m. service when the explosion happened, knocking him to his knees. He thought a small plane had crashed into the downtown area.

“It was just like the movies you see on TV where there is a big explosion, the building rocks and all the windows start moving around,” Patterson says. “It was just an incredible experience.”

Shortly after the explosion, chaos ensued as volunteers, police, firemen and state officials were on the scene to determine the cause of the explosion as they prepared for the worst, searching the rubble for fatalities.

Miraculously, there were none.

“A large part of the street was gone from the Kopper Kettle on down Magnolia,” says Patterson. “Many of the businesses had not opened yet, but there were students living in apartments above those businesses. That was the concern; nobody knew where they were at.”

Much to everyone’s relief, not a single person was killed that day and no life-threatening injuries were sustained. Students were away from their apartments, cars were halted at just the right stoplight, and churchgoers, like Patterson, were just beginning to emerge. The restaurant was closed at the time of the blast, according to a report by ABC News.

Investigators determined the gas leak blast was equivalent to multiple tons of TNT exploding.

Another witness, a Vietnam veteran, said that it was the most devastating aftermath he had witnessed since returning from the war.

“It’s a memory I’ll never forget,” says Patterson. “At that time in 1978, Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ was a big hit. I can say that I was rocked by the song and also by the Kopper Kettle.”

The Kopper Kettle made national headlines that night as word spread about the freak accident in a small Alabama town.

“We were all so grateful that there were no fatalities,” Patterson says. “Everyone in the community really came together that day. I’m so thankful Auburn was small and slow back then. If this had happened today, it would be a much different outcome.”

Two weeks after the explosion, at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Sinclair gave a sermon fittingly titled “Explosions,” recognizing the outpouring of camaraderie and grateful spirits exhibited in Auburn following the blast. Sinclair and his wife, Louise, now live in Charlottesville, Va.

By the early 1980s, the block was rebuilt and the evidence of the blast was gone.

The familiar greasy spoon that once stood on the corner of Gay Street and Magnolia Avenue did not make a return, but it will forever be remembered by Auburn students and residents.

In fact, shortly after the Kopper Kettle’s demise, an Auburn student wrote and recorded the local radio hit “The Kettle’s Gone,” a take-off on the country hit “The King is Gone.” Commemorative T-shirts were printed and sold, and Auburn graduates still recall exactly where they were the day of the Kopper Kettle explosion.ν

Editor’s note: Patterson is a retired diplomat with the U.S. Department of State and resides in Washington, D.C. He lived near the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and says as his windows shook from the plane crash, he thought back to that January day in 1978.