Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Nesting cranes bluster, but no blood is shed
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 16, 2009)
The sandhill-crane saga continues.
One recent Saturday, I heard the sandhill cranes on our property making their warning calls, so I grabbed the binoculars and rushed outside to see what was going on.
On the long, narrow sand spit where the cranes nest, the female had stood up, leaving her two eggs exposed. About 20feet away, the male crane walked toward her with long-legged determination. Between them was a large turtle. The turtle, probably figuring the narrow sand spit was a good place to catch some rays, made an unfortunate pick. His sunning spot — about 7 feet from the nest — was too close for comfort.
The female crane raised her voice in protest, her warning cry joined by the male, who was rapidly approaching. The vocalizing continued until the female felt sure her partner was close enough to deal with the problem alone. Secure at last, she returned to her egg-warming responsibility. Meanwhile, the male used his pointy beak to approach the unwitting turtle and drive home the message that it was time to leave.
"Go!" Nudge, nudge. "Get away!" He poked. "Find somewhere else to sun, away from our eggs."
Turtles are reputed to be slow on land, but if my observations are any indication, they're fast on the uptake. The hard-shelled critter wasted no time retreating into the water and paddling off to friendlier shores. With the threat abated, calm returned. Mama crane continued nesting, papa crane resumed foraging for food and the unwelcome turtle disappeared underwater.
A few minutes passed. I returned to my desk, and the cranes resumed foraging for food and incubating eggs.
You would think one such adrenaline-pumping experience would be enough for the birds to deal with in a day. It wasn't. Less than 15 minutes later, I again heard sandhill-crane sounds of alarm. I ran outside again, binoculars in hand. This time a turtle didn't trigger their cries; another pair of sandhill cranes did.
This was the second time I've witnessed the territorial proclamations of sandhill cranes. A few days before, a pair of the long-legged birds had flown overhead before settling down on the shoreline at the opposite end of the lake from the nesting couple. In typical crane fashion, a great deal of vocalizing transpired in the air and on the ground.
"This is our lake," the nesting pair seemed to bellow from below.
"Don't get your feathers all ruffled," the newcomers seemed to reply. "We're not going to bother you. We're landing on the other end, far away from your island."
I suppose their exchange succeeded in placating the nesting pair because the new birds landed and did stay far away, at least initially. Several hours later, that wasn't the case. The nonresident birds slowly meandered their way around the shoreline until they were a mere 40feet or so away from the other cranes' nest. At that point, new bellowing began, accompanied by a sudden explosion of wings as both mama and papa crane took off and landed next to the newcomers. All at once, four sets of croaky voices filled the air.
"You said you were not going to bother us and now look where you are," the nesting couple seemed to scold.
"All right already, don't get so upset. We're out of here," the newcomers seemed to say.
Their wings spread and away they flew.
As soon as the intruders were in the air, the nesting couple returned to the sand spit and the two exposed eggs.
This time, I expected to see a similar confrontation. But that wasn't the case. Instead of the new birds coming close to the nest, the visitors were far away at the opposite shore. The nesting pair reacted immediately. They flew off together and landed right next to the newcomers.
"Leave!" They seemed to say. "Right now! Fly away!"
And they did. The visitors took off and our resident birds flew back to their island home. The female went back to the nest, but the male stopped by a nearby shoreline to chase away a murder of crows. After the crane-chasing incident, some adrenaline must still have been pumping through his system that he needed to release.
I suppose we all have territorial limits. When it happens to people, fights ensue. When it happens to countries, we have war. When it happens to sandhill cranes, there's a lot of bluster, feather ruffling and vocalizing, but, eventually, one bird or the other gets the message and flies away. End of story. No bloody encounters or bombing of homelands, just loud cries of complaint followed by acquiescence.
Too bad people can't act the same way