The pair of sandhill cranes roamed the ponds and grasslands here, feeding on plants and insects, exploring the wetlands and raising their young.
The birds kept their distance when the humans first moved in a decade ago. People razed the land and erected buildings. They drove cars and sang songs on Sundays.
Soon, the cranes grew braver. They ventured a little closer to the people, especially up to the man called Pastor Dave. Eventually, they became a part of the landscape at Family of Christ Lutheran Church and School, where the gray, feathered creatures learned to live alongside suburban sprawl.
Pastor Dave Haara named the couple "Fred" and "Ethel" after Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's best friends in the I Love Lucy television series.
"They were the neighbors who were always over," Haara said.
The cranes were there when the church opened. They witnessed the unveiling of a child development center, and an elementary and middle school. They saw schoolchildren at play and families gathering for services. Members came and went, school enrollment doubled and infants cooed in the nursery.
But when members celebrate the increasingly popular New Tampa church's 10th anniversary in March, they will have to do it without Fred and Ethel.
• • •
Fred and Ethel seemed like mates for life, as they strutted throughout the church's 31-acre property. Every day, the gray birds held their heads high as their long, twig-like legs slowly stepped one ahead of the other. They peered inside classrooms and walked through the children's garden. They meandered the mulched play area and foraged for food next to the parking lot.
And as sandhill cranes tend to do, they protected their territory. Every so often, another male crane would challenge Fred.
"The fights were ferocious," Haara said. "Feathers would fly. They would flute so loudly, you could hear it inside the buildings. It lasted for hours."
Fred always won. He was so territorial, whenever he walked by his reflection in a car, he would peck at it. New cars, shiny cars and freshly waxed cars all ended up with chipped paint.
Fred and Ethel became lessons in nature. They had one or two chicks a year.
Teacher Barbara Toepke had her second-graders keep journals about the couple's comings and goings.
Students would peer quietly over tall reeds and watch the cranes sitting on their nest.
The schoolchildren delighted in the debut of the chicks. One year, as the students gathered around the flagpole for their Monday morning prayer, they heard trumpeting.
"Here they were, walking down the street where the cars were, with their two babies with them," Toepke recalled. "They were letting us know their babies were here."
Another year, after the new sanctuary and school classrooms were built, a parent accidentally ran over a chick during the morning rush. Children cried, adults prayed and the cranes stood over the body in silence. That's the reason the church installed speed bumps.
Two years ago, Ethel was hit by a car, which broke her leg. She hobbled around on one foot. Haara called around to animal rescue agencies and was told to lure her with food, then grab her and bring her in for treatment. Others said to leave her alone, that human contact would traumatize Ethel. He let her be.
After three months of hopping around on one leg, the broken limb healed crudely and she began walking with a limp.
• • •
Haara heard the "guard" calls last spring. It was Fred making the single, loud utterances to warn other cranes of danger. He was about to be challenged for his territory again.
The fight lasted a few hours. When it ended, Fred and Ethel were gone.
Two new cranes moved in.
The congregation frowned.
Pastor Haara would nod when he saw the new couple, but he didn't sing to them, didn't name them.
"The male seems a bit more aggressive than Fred was," Haara observed.
The cranes kept their distance as they explored their new territory. They didn't peck at cars or watch the children play.
Until one day, about a month ago, during school hours, they walked up to the glass doors and peered inside.
They weren't Fred and Ethel, but it was a start.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or [email protected]