Posted by: atowhee | September 25, 2016


There are few birds on this earth that can compare with Sandhill Cranes in their many extraordinary ways of being.  Perhaps the oldest bird species still alive, tens of millions of years for cranes while our American warblers seem kindergarteners in their nouveau evolution.  Long, curled throat that allows trumpeting superior to any manmade brass instrument or electronic facsimile. Both crane species in North America are our tallest birds.  Unlike towering emu or ostrich, they fly.  Some From Siberia to the southern U.S.  Thousands of miles annually, at heights of thousands of feet. To see an adult pair in evening light, iron stains still on their gray plumage, the sunset glow on their red skull cap, elegant legs and curved neck stretched, then bent…in turn to be seen through their eyes of the same kind that once watched mastodon and saber tooth, this is a moment in birding to be savored, and shared.  Herewith a pair of cranes along Diamond Road, Harney County:crane-belly-preencrane-feed-1280x960crane-feml-alertcrane-itch-1280x960crane-preen1-1280x960cranes-eyeA small feather hangs rakishly from the male’s beak tip, while he gives us a cutting stare. This mated pair will migrate and winter together, returning to the Malheur area late next winter. Most summers Malheur has Oregon’s largest concentration of breeding Sandhill Cranes.  I am told they had a good breeding season there this year. Most of the world’s Sandhill Cranes breed far to the north in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.  Some states cling to archaic values and have crane hunting seasons…across the Great Plains (except Nebraska).  No crane hunting on the Pacific Coast.

Below, three images of the same couple by Kirk Gooding:fullsizerender_5fullsizerender_6fullsizerender_7To clarify a point of discussion on our trip: the adult crane’s red crown is bare flesh, not feathers.


I am not alone in the crane universe.  There are many of us enthusiastic cranists.  I have worn out the brilliant lines on these birds by Aldo Leopold.  Herewith a few other commentaries:

“Cranes are the stuff of magic, whose voices penetrate the atmosphere of the world’s wilderness areas, from arctic tundra to the South African veld, and whose footprints have been left on the wetlands of the world for the past 60 million years or more.”                           –Paul Johnsgard

“Preening, feather ruffling, and similar body care activities …occur in social or ‘display’ context in most and probably all cranes.”                                                    –Paul Johnsgard

“Cranes are among the oldest living bird groups, and the sandhill crane in particular is the oldest known currently existing species, based on fossil remains attributed to this species that are about nine million years old.  Cranes were already on the scene when the earliest primates were small, hesitant, and shrewlike…”                                           –Paul Johnsgard

“Like most American Indian tribes–most traditional peoples, for that matter–the Anishinabe (or Chippewa or Ojibway) revere the crane, which is so admired for its oratorical abilities that it is called ‘Echo Maker’ or ‘Speaker for the Clans’.”     –Peter Matthiessen

On a pet Sandhill Crane “Nothing pleased Sandy more than an outing with her human friends.  Brimming with excitement, garrulous, ready to bounce and dance, she would flap her wings excitedly, begging me to fly with her… There is in a sandhill crane no movemnet, no action not of immaculate grace, unless it is at that moment when they first touch land from flight… Since man first tried to reproduce the beauty of his world upon a cavern wall, the cranes have fascinated him…”                –Dayton O. Hyde

Platte River, Nebraska, March 20 afternoon “Buttermilk sky. Deep blue space winged with downy clouds shading into an ashy gray.  The Sandhill Cranes come from all directions.  There is nowhere to look but up in the sky, and nowhere to look that there are not Cranes, undulating wave upon wave of Cranes. Their calls precede them, announcing their skyborne waves flowing in immense Vs of orderly ranks, or, suddenly as if there were no North,  East, South or West for them, they dissolve into a scattered alphabet, soaring n thermals which momentarily direct their coarse.  There is nothing like it, no word to equate their sound. Nothing I have ever heard in all my life vibrates inside the ear like the calls of thousands of Cranes.”         –Alice Lindsay Price

“A flock of cranes spirals out of the sky to drop into an old milo field. The birds float groundward, looking like dandelion seeds–a broad mass of wings above, the stilt-like legs dangling below. Each bird judiciously spills wind from its cupped wings in order to descent under control.  Just before landing, a crane adopts a “flaps down” wing posture, then backstrokes while running a  step or two.”                               –Steve Grooms

“If you’ve never heard sandhills, imagine a Scotsman clearing his throat in a long, burred garoo! into a rain barrel.  Depending on your fancy this burbling hoot can sound hopeful, mournful, weird, archaic, or simply beautiful.”                          –Steve Grooms

Indulge me, and Aldo, once more:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”             –Aldo Leopold

“When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird, we hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”      –Aldo Leopold


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