After her mate was hit by a vehicle, a Mississippi sandhill crane stood by, watching helplessly as another pair of cranes attacked her long-term partner.
The four birds had most likely been searching for insects in the short grass next to Mississippi 57 just south of Ocean Springs High School on Thursday morning when one of them was hit.
As is so often the case in nature, the healthy preyed upon the weak, turning on a fellow member of the endangered species.
Luckily, a pair of human passers-by broke up the kerfuffle, called the authorities and attempted to slow traffic.
"When the one got hurt, the other two decided they were going to attack it," said John Loll of Ocean Springs, who stopped with his wife, Tracy. "We kind of jumped out of the truck and scared them off."
The injured crane's mate did not flee, though, until after she gave a call of alarm when a biologist with the nearby Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge approached the wounded bird to offer medical attention. "This one didn't actually have any breaks, any fractures, which is totally amazing," said supervisory biologist Scott Hereford. "But it has internal damage so it's hanging in there."
He said such collisions are almost always fatal.
Crane No. 346 was taken to the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center on the West Bank of New Orleans, and is recuperating.
Hereford said the bird has been moving around, eating and drinking, so he is hopeful 346 can be returned to the refuge.
"If he can make it we'll try and bring him back and let him go near his site and hopefully his wife will still be there," he said.
The two have been together at least seven years and have raised two chicks.
"They're a very close pair," he said.
That also makes them valuable to a refuge that has been trying to return the species' population to a self-sustaining level.
Mississippi sandhill cranes mate for life. They can live into their mid-20s and pairs can last as long as 10-15 years. A female typically lays two eggs at a time, and only one survives.
The cranes are brought to the refuge after being hatched at the Audubon Institute, and eventually grow to fly outside the bounds of the property.
They are frequently spotted near the refuge, especially on Old Spanish Trail and parts of Mississippi 57, Hereford said.
Having one or two birds hit by a car per year is about average, but that hasn't been the case recently.
"We've had four fatal hits in a little over a year, which is the worst period ever," he said.
Unfortunately, the cranes are attracted to short, cut grass, such as near roads, where it can be easier to find insects. They can also be hit when flying too low over a road.
The refuge's Facebook page warned people Tuesday to be aware of the birds when driving nearby.
"Please help us to spread the word in our community to use caution when driving along refuge boundaries and obey the posted speed limits -- its good medicine for us all!," the post read.