Monday, November 8, 2010

Sandhill cranes' mating dance a stunning spectacle

Sandhill cranes, large birds that mate for life, begin their partnership with an elaborate mating dance.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 7, 2010)

A pair of sandhill cranes wandered into our yard when my daughter and I happened to be watching. The male bird, a bold chap slightly smaller than his female counterpart, decided the time was right to demonstrate his prowess. While we stood less than 20 feet away, the male spread his wings and jumped up and down as he poked at an unidentifiable object down by the water.

"What's he doing?" Jenny asked.

"It looks like there's something in the lake — maybe a snake — that he's trying to scare away," I said, before it dawned on me that we were observing the opening act of a sandhill crane mating dance.

Although I often see sandhill cranes strutting by or flying overhead, I have had a front-row seat for this avian spectacle on only one other occasion. In February 2009, I managed to capture on video a sandhill crane mating dance from start to finish.

Although that performance was amazing, the dance that Jenny and I observed the other day was even more special. Not only did we see it together, it also happened much closer. At one point, the birds were within arm's reach of where we were standing. Although aware of our presence, the pair of 4-foot-tall, gray-feathered birds with bright red crowns seemed sufficiently secure to go about their business without reticence.

As part of the courtship ritual, a male sandhill crane demonstrates to his potential partner how strong, powerful and protective he can be. He pokes at sticks, reeds or long grasses and sometimes tosses in them the air. He hops up and down, fluffs out his wings and shakes his tail feathers. He does all of this while standing quite close to the female, who tends to ignore the display. She turns her back and pecks for food as if the male weren't there.

Watching the cranes with my daughter was an unexpected pleasure. Jenny and her husband, Brett, had flown into Orlando from their home in Massachusetts to spend a long weekend with us. It was a rare opportunity for all of our grown children, their spouses and our one grandchild to spend time together. Chancing upon an up-close viewing of a sandhill crane mating dance – the first step in the cranes' own development of family matters – was not only stunning, it was an appropriate addition to our own family get-together.

"They got so close to us," Jenny said afterward. "It's as if they knew we wouldn't hurt them."

Maybe they do know, I thought. Maybe their presence at a time when our family was there to observe them was not just an accident of timing but an indication of acceptance. Perhaps the birds sensed our affection for them and felt secure enough to be at ease.

It's just as likely, however, that the whole thing was just a chance encounter. Sandhill cranes are among the least shy birds in North America. Mated pairs and extended families frequently wander through suburban neighborhoods, peer into porch windows and poke their sharp beaks into lawns in search of insect treats.

I'll never know why the two cranes chose that particular day and time to come into our yard and perform their mating dance, but I'm glad they did. Being privy to wildlife interactions always excites me, but being able to share such experiences with people I love adds richness and meaning to the moment.

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