Peter Shelton

The Eagle and the Cranes

Posted in Animal Dreams, Watch columns by pshelton on November 29, 2012

Balmy weather drew me up the hill behind the house one recent afternoon. The adobe clay was dry and loose underfoot and the air so still I could hear flocks of sandhill cranes coming from several miles down the valley.

One especially large group appeared from behind the folds of the hill, heading south. I counted a couple of clusters and estimated the flock at about 200 birds. They’re migrating from their breeding grounds in Canada, with their young, to winter in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. In spring, they turn around and fly north again. A big bunch of them, up to half a million birds, stops off in the sand hills of Nebraska on the way, and thus the name.

With healthy numbers, sociable sandhills have been enlisted as surrogate parents for endangered whooping crane chicks, but the experiments didn’t work. The captive-bred babies bonded too well with their foster parents, failing later to fly with their own kind and trying instead to mate with sandhills.

They make the most amazing sounds. It’s not a goose honk, though in flight the cranes are sometimes mistaken for Canada geese, or snow geese. They’re bigger than geese, lighter, with long necks and wingspans up to seven feet. Their pale gray feathers look almost white when they turn in formation toward the sun. From below you don’t see their red heads.

I would describe the call as a kind of tuneful gargling. Or an amplified mass purring. One bird site on the Web said the sound is “like the rolling French ‘r’ in the back of the throat.” Apparently, they really are talking with one another – a two hundred-strong coffee klatch. Courting pairs repeat the same phrase to one another, again and again, in unison.

In any case, it can be quite loud, an otherworldly cacophony, especially with a group this big. And I got to listen to them for a long time, because they chose the thermal over Onion Creek, just south of me, to gain altitude before heading over Red Mountain Pass.

Up they spiraled on the rising air, flashing white then dark depending on their angle to the sun, like water flowing in reverse, swirling up to a drain.

They tried to stay together – flapping, talking – but one group of 50 got ahead of the others, and smaller, less organized groups fell off then struggled to get back in the tight-turning flow.

I found a flat rock and sat down to watch. Before long I noticed a solitary dark silhouette soaring below the wheeling cranes. It was a golden eagle, a big one, probably a female who lived in the area, with wings easily as long as the cranes’, but much broader, dark brown, with a solid body and wide fanned tail.

The eagle hooked into the same thermal the cranes were riding and quickly caught up. Then she was among them, sometimes right in their midst, sometimes barreling up on the side from a slightly different angle.

Whenever the eagle pierced the crane formation it was like watching a bullet shatter an apple in slow mo. The cranes nearest the point of entry scattered in disarray then tried desperately to catch back on to the spinning top. Their babbling rose in alarm, like a crowd reacting to a crash, the sound arriving to my ears a second or two after the fact.

This went on for minutes, the eagle exploding the tightly woven crane fabric, the cranes hollering and falling off, then scrambling, patching the whole back together.

Later, when I looked up golden eagle behavior, I read that they do sometimes prey on other birds, but it didn’t say whether they take birds in flight, like falcons do. And this golden did not appear to be at all interested in the cranes as supper. With her soaring ability and those talons – a grip 15 times as strong as a human hand – she could have plucked her choice at will, but she seemed, to my eye at least, to be supremely uninterested, or interested only in the game.

Sometimes she flew wingtip to wingtip with them right in the vortex, daring them to notice. Other times she’d drift out of the spiral only the zoom back on another tack, inevitably to cause another panicked kerfuffle.

Slowly, the whole spinning circus drifted up and away from me. The clarion gargling faded, the mass of cranes indistinct. And the eagle was reduced to a dark needle, disappearing completely after a while in the dome of blue.

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