Pondering Cranes and the Animal/Human Relationship

The Sandhill cranes are still here. It’s amazing and wonderful. Teddy and I headed out yesterday and, for Teddy, the biggest excitement (except going with me) was flushing two ducks out of a ditch. He didn’t mean to, and I didn’t mean to, but those guys startle easily.

When we were at our turnaround point, the cranes, thousands of them, suddenly took to the air, calling loudly to each other and the world below. It was a spectacular show, but what interested me most was seeing whatever had set them in motion. I did, though not close enough to identify it exactly. A large hawk or eagle was flying low and fast away from the pond, having given up on what he must have thought would be an easy meal.

After watching five hours of nature documentaries (BTW this is NOT a good strategy for relaxation; stick to film versions of Jane Austen novels), I started thinking about the Romantic poets and the so-called “Romantic Era.” Is that where our attitude toward nature changed? There are writers who argue that it is, that until the early 19th century humans regarded the whole big mess of kill-or-be-killed reality as an adversary. I can’t accept that kind of blanket perspective about anything, but it’s probably true that before there were tunnels through mountains, mountains were less appealing, more obstacle than wonder.

The argument kind of hinges on how many early cultures ultimately began raising food on farms rather than gathering random seeds and chasing the woolly mammoth. Thinking about that, I began to see a small domestic farm as a refrigerator. “Grog, honey? Next time you go out, maybe you could bring back a live prairie rooster and hen? You were saying that there are hardly any prairie hens out there any more! I think we could just build a little enclosure and feed them and have the hens we want and their eggs, too!”

WHAT??? Are you impugning my hunting skills?”

“No no nothing like that, but you said it was getting harder and harder to find them.”

I’m sure it happened EXACTLY like that. Word for word.

In any case, no one has domesticated the Sandhill crane. They are hunted in various parts of the United States, but apparently are not easy prey. Ask any eagle.

“Though not quite as prehistoric as dinosaurs, sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living species on Earth, with fossilized specimens dating to 2.5 million years ago. Over those roughly 250,000 generations, the birds have gotten pretty wary. That’s why successful crane hunters have big spreads of hyperrealistic decoys, spend more time patterning birds than they do actually hunting them, and take care not to overhunt specific areas.Outdoor Life “Stealth and Decoy Tips”

Thinking about this led me to think about how many early people regarded their prey animals as gods. The plains’ Indians believed that a buffalo they were able to kill was giving itself to them.

That makes me think that we have always seen the beauty in the wild creatures around us, maybe even mores in the days when we lived together with them. And Sandhill cranes are VERY wary, though, on my last couple of forays out into their world, they have flown directly over me as if they finally got the message that I’m not going to kill them. I believe they are every bit as observant of me — more even — as I am of them.


14 thoughts on “Pondering Cranes and the Animal/Human Relationship

  1. Early man worshipped animals but also feared them at the same time. Once civilization kicked in, the worship disappeared but the fear remained. (Probably something buried deep in our lizard brain.) When animals became domesticated, it added the fear of having our livestock eaten to the deeper fear of large bitey things in general.

    That fear and loathing of wild predators remains today in cattle and sheep country. But I also see it among people who fear to recreate anywhere wild because every year somewhere in this vast nation a couple of people get attacked by a bear or a cougar. I don’t judge those people as evil but I obviously think they are misguided. I understand how a small threat can be focused and fixated upon and blown way out of proportion..

    When I was a small child I became fixted on a fear of black widows after a particular TV show, even though I’d never met one in my life and I lived outside its distribution. That morphed into a fear of spiders n general. The only good spider was a dead spider but I was so afraid of them I couldn’t get close enough to kill them. (Obviously I am not the only person who ever felt this way.) It took an effort of will to grow out of it. For most people it is easier to stay afraid, so they never make the effort.

    Substitute wolf or cougar for spider. Slipping and falling in the bathtub is immensely more dangerous than spider bites. Or predator attacks. Obviously we do not fear things in proportion to their actual threat. Humans have the trait of going hyeprbolic over low probability events. This is transmitted very effectively by lurid stories. Apparently such stories have far more impact than rational thought. Ranchers who are (somewhat reasonably) loathe to accept the rare loss of an animal to predation then fan these fears.

    Today the fear of wild predators has also turned into a proxy for other more political fears. Loss of local control, loss of freedom, loss of individualism, loss of a way of life. All this is heavy burden to bear for something that just wants to feed its pups and keep its family alive.

    • Which is why more farmers and ranchers are employing livestock guardian dogs.

      I think for a lot of people the biggest fear of nature is that they don’t know it. They have learned to fear things without learning how to contend with the (unlikely) encounter. Many other people — who should be afraid — aren’t and don’t realize nature is not a commodity designed for their enjoyment. My friends here are very happy to go out to the wildlife refuge with me where the “trail” is a road and the vistas are wide. They are very reluctant to go into the mountains which is disappointing but OK since I can’t really climb up and down hills easily anymore anyway.

      I’m more grateful now than ever before for the “friendly” mountains of Southern California that were my playground for so many years.

      I’m not afraid of most predators, but I can do without encountering a bear. Still, if I do, I’ll be glad to see it and equipped to persuade it to head off. For me an encounter has always been worth the risk, always with four-legged allies with me. But it isn’t worth the risk to go out there and chance getting C-19 and as a teenager I saw it wasn’t worth the risk to me to fall off a rock wall.

      • I have seen a few wild bears. They ran away as fast as they could. So fast I have only gotten one photo of a fuzzy blob. Plenty of tracks, though. OTOH, I’ve seen plenty of deer, placidly chewing while they watched me back, so bears are obviously more afraid of people than deer are. One cougar that evaporated like smoke. Only a couple of coyotes. That is the extent of it over 50 years of hiking, with 40 of them being in the California backcountry.

        OTOH I’ve seen plenty of coyote and bear that were habitated to humans. Mostly in parks and on the urban edges. Those are a problem.

        Unrestrained dogs can be a problem too. If a big dog comes running towards someone I can easily see the flight or fight responce going into hyperdrive. Is why owners need to keep them under tight control on hikes. More than once I had to worry if their uncontrolled dog was going to mix it up with me and my leashed dog. One of several reasons I like to hike in areas so remote I never see another person. Even so I usually keep mine on a retractable 26 ft. leash. They get some freedom and I get some control. Don’t want them going after a bear or a skunk or a porcupine or mistaken for a varmint.

  2. I think your domestic dialogue is spot on. I’ve always thought Eve got a bad rap for just saying, “Mmm this apple is good honey, wanna bite?”

  3. I totally think the cranes see you as friend, not foe. 😊 I also like your refrigerator analogy. So much hunting and gathering takes time. Perhaps the concept of growing food and raising animals for food was at least partially born as a way to barter for other goods and services too. And people weren’t as afraid of what they could control in a pen or a barn. As opposed to the “wild” part of nature.

  4. A wonderful observational piece. I’m curious too about what the origin of domestication would look like… And if Eve made pie I’m sure Adam wouldn’t have had to be persuaded. He might have even begged for seconds!

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