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Pas de Deux

April 7, 2010

I saw my first sandhill crane before I began to bird seriously. It stood alone, foraging in a field. I at first mistook it for a great blue heron, but a quick look through my binoculars convinced me otherwise. I was fascinated by its size, its grey and rusty plumage, its fierce dagger bill, and its bold yellow eyes peering out beneath its scarlet crown. Later that day, as I thumbed through my Roger Tory Peterson field guide, I realized I’d seen a bird of which I never heard before.

Sandhill cranes are fairly common summer residents of Utah, although they are much less often found in the arid portions of the Great Basin than in the wetlands of the higher country. With a bit of effort and some luck, one might have the opportunity to watch them dance. Theirs is not the elegant and erotic dirty dancing of the grebes. It reminds me, in a way, of adolescents at a junior high school dance. Cranes leap. They flap. They throw back their heads and bugle like untrained boy scouts, short throaty ejaculations, coarse but unmistakably enthusiastic. Clumps of grass and sticks are tossed. Cranes breed for life. This dancing serves to reinforce the bond. I do not understand the symbolism of their gestures, but the wildness and the passion are self evident.

Cranes began to fly across the wetlands below our home last week. I think of Peter Matthiessen’s marvelous book, “The Birds of Heaven,” and understand the origin of its title.

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