Monday, February 23, 2009

He puffs and stomps, she ignores it - sound familiar?

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 23, 2009)

'You've got to see this," Ralph said as he rushed back to the house from the nursery. "The sandhill cranes are out here and one of them is bobbing up and down."

"Ooh!" I exclaimed. "I bet it's doing a mating dance. I'll grab my camera and be right there."

Two minutes later, I'm outside. My bare feet carefully avoid red-ant hills as I squat down in a grassy spot about 50 feet from the birds. The cranes -- perhaps the same pair that roosts nightly on a small exposed sandbar in the lake -- are along the water's edge slowly trolling the shallows for food. Every few minutes one or another stops feeding to survey its surroundings.

Squatting is uncomfortable so I eventually settle into a sitting position and play with the zoom until I have the birds tightly framed in the viewfinder. Within minutes, I'm enjoying a front-row seat at a show of avian amour.

The male bird, slightly larger than his female counterpart, leaves the shoreline to walk toward a mounded earthen berm. With his mate following, the large birds hop up the hillock and settle onto the flat weedy surface.

After a quick peek over his shoulder at his partner, the male fluffs out his tail feathers and extends his impressively broad wings. Turning so his rear end faces his mate, the crane proceeds to jump up and down, flapping his wings in the process.

After four leaps, he switches tactics.

A slender blade of grass is now the subject of his attention. As if the blade were a snake intent on devouring eggs instead of a slim weed bending in the breeze, the male proceeds to peck at it repeatedly. For good measure, he also pounces upon it twice as if telling a potential predator, "You're not going to bother my family!"

In all of 19 seconds, the show is over. The male bird immediately reverts to normal behavior, meandering along the ground in search of food. But what a 19 seconds it was!

In that short time Mr. Sandhill Crane showed his missus how big and strong he is and how protective he can be of his family. Was his partner impressed? I don't think so. Throughout this dazzling display of male virility and protective prowess, the female crane paid little to no attention. Basically, she ignored him.

When it comes to demonstrations of showoff-y masculinity, humans and birds have much in common. The males of both species occasionally act like fools.

I made a video of the sandhill crane mating dance and posted it on Facebook. My friend, Stephen Scarlato in New Haven, Conn., watched it and left the following post: "I showed Bridget (my girlfriend) this video. Her reaction: 'That's totally us, as birds.' That is, one dancing around extravagantly, one totally ignoring . . . :)"

How often have women watched men try their hardest to impress them with boisterous behavior, self-proclaiming boasts and blatant brags?

Puffing out their feathers and stomping up and down might turn a few heads, but women often respond to such displays by rolling their eyes, shaking their head and hoping with all their might that their hormonally charged partners won't do something stupid such as get in a fight.

Sure, we want a life mate who will protect and defend us, but virility has its limits. Strength is important but so are tenderness, sensitivity and compassion.

Maybe birds have it easier than humans. With needs so basic -- food, water and a safe nesting place -- they can afford to act extravagantly -- even foolishly -- at times, stomping on blades of grass and leaping into the air with wings spread wide. If their mate ignores them, well, there's always next time.

They have the luxury of spending all day, every day with the object of their attention. Sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life.

I felt privileged for the chance to peek into the world of these fascinating birds and ponder the wonders of another way of life.

People are certainly not sandhill cranes, but we're not as far removed from our avian counterparts as some might like to think. We can learn much by watching wildlife -- not only about the animals we observe but also about ourselves.

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