Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Belinda Burwell’s name. The story has been corrected.
When Kevin showed up in the Belmont Country Club neighborhood in Ashburn last month, he proved to be quite good — a little too good, some said later — at making friends. At first, residents in the upscale suburban community were surprised and amused by Kevin’s willingness to join them for an afternoon stroll or a snack.
They figured he wouldn’t stick around for long. But when residents kept seeing him meandering through back yards and loitering by the lake, a few neighbors decided it was unfortunately necessary to contact authorities.
“We got a couple of calls from people who told us they’d seen a crane,” said Belinda Burwell, veterinarian and founder of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center. “We were very sure they weren’t right about that. But then someone sent me a picture.”
Burwell looked at the image of the large bird, with its spindly legs, gray body, long neck and red-capped head, and Kevin’s identity was officially confirmed: he (or possibly she, though the bird’s size suggested a male) was a sandhill crane.
This prompted concern, Burwell said. Kevin — so named by his Ashburn neighbors in honor of the comically friendly, gender-ambiguous avian character from the Pixar film “Up” — was alone, though sandhill cranes are communal birds, often traveling in large flocks. And while sandhill cranes are not an uncommon bird — they’re widely found migrating through the Midwest or breeding in freshwater wetlands near the Great Lakes — the birds are very rarely spotted in the Mid-Atlantic region. Somehow, Kevin had become very lost.
When it became clear that Kevin had no clear plans to leave Ashburn, Animal Control was dispatched, Burwell said. The June 2 capture was fairly simple, she said, as Kevin was amenable to making a new friend, even one carrying a very large net.
At the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, Burwell determined that Kevin was healthy, save for a relatively mild case of lead poisoning, most likely the result eating a discarded hunting bullet casing. But the bird quickly grew lonely and primarily showed interest in eating “junk food,” Burwell said, meaning the sort of seed and bread that his neighborhood fans had offered him.
“That’s what he wanted, over all the other nutritious foods we offered him, and I was very concerned about that,” Burwell said. “And he wasn’t very afraid of us. . . . We were concerned that if we let him go here, he would find his way back to people.”
Burwell and Nicole Hamilton, president of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, began exhaustively researching sandhill cranes and their habitats, hoping to find a better place to continue Kevin’s rehabilitation and release him into the wild.
The search lasted over a week, Hamilton said, until it became clear that they no longer had the luxury of time. The bird started eating even less, and his attempts to befriend his cage-mate, a turkey vulture, weren’t getting him anywhere.
“We had to move faster,” Hamilton said. “When they get depressed, they typically don’t last long,”
With the search kicked into high gear, Hamilton said her e-mails, listserv postings and calls eventually narrowed to focus on one particular recommendation: the Howell Conference and Nature Center in Howell, Mich.
The Howell center’s staff said they would be happy to take the bird; they had several other cranes that were also being rehabilitated and prepared for release in a nearby area populated by wild cranes.
The destination was confirmed. So was the mode of transport: Hamilton and her husband, Gil, a pilot, offered to personally deliver Kevin to his new home via a private flight in the couple’s four-seater Cessna airplane. On the morning of June 14, they loaded Kevin’s travel crate into the back of the plane and took off into clear skies.
“We didn’t know what to expect; when we fly with our dog he just goes to sleep — but he’s a dog, and this was a bird,” Hamilton said. “We wondered what a bird would do at altitude flying in a plane.”
But Kevin was a quiet passenger all the way to Michigan, Hamilton said, where staff from the Howell nature center were waiting at the airport.
After his first few days in Michigan, wildlife rehabilitator Maxine Biwer said Kevin was happily bonding with his fellow birds and eating appropriate meals.
“Cranes are quite social, and they seem to relax a lot more when they’re in a group,” Biwer said. “The plan is to keep the bird until it has shown that it is healthy, that it flies well, eats well. Then we can release it.”
Burwell and Hamilton said Kevin was the first sandhill crane they’d ever seen in Northern Virginia — and hopefully he’ll be the last, as most wayward bird stories don’t end so happily. But Hamilton said it was “truly moving” to help Kevin find a way back to his kin.
As he was released into the flight cage at the Howell nature center, Hamilton and her husband stood on the other side of the large wooden wall, listening. They were told to remain out of sight, she said, to make it easier for Kevin to focus on reuniting with the other cranes.
“So we just listened, and all of a sudden we just heard this joyous chorus, and we knew that he had come out of his cage and met his kind,” Hamilton said. “It was beautiful.”