Wednesday 21 February 2018

Crane happy flapping is taking off

High flyer: Innovative crane training at UK Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire
High flyer: Innovative crane training at UK Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire

Joe Kennedy

More than a decade ago, the American writer Peter Matthiessen published a book about cranes called Birds of Heaven.

This was an apt description of the magnificent 'Grus grus', a creature sacred to mankind for thousands of years.

Matthiessen's book was essentially about a breeding programme for sandhill cranes in the US Dakotas using a microlight aircraft to lead young hand-reared birds on their traditional southward migration. The chicks were trained to imprint on the 'parent' flying craft. This pioneering project was a considerable success.

Now, nearer home, volunteers with the UK Wetland and Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire have also been seriously engaged in fostering the species, acting as surrogate parents for young birds in a breeding programme. They have even dressed in 'crane suits' to mingle with the spoon-fed chicks to point them towards foraging for insects on the ground. And, once the young fledge and begin to exercise their wings, the humans run among them flapping their arms!

Sounds bizarre, but this has been a great success and British crane numbers have increased to about 150 pairs with 50 breeders. The birds are being released in the Somerset Levels and adventuring into Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland. We lost our breeding cranes in Ireland around 1700 through poaching and plume-seeking for the millinery trade.

Today it is debatable if we have the habitat availability for a re-introduction, aside from some areas of north Mayo and perhaps stripped-out bogs in the Midlands. The birds also need nearby dense timber cover.

'An Corr', its old Irish name, was considered a sacred bird, a protected link to the underworld. The druids did not leave any visual records - as did the Chinese - but there is one 'modern' image on the North Cross at Ahenny in Tipperary of a crane leading a group of men and horses. The bird, with its great bushy tail formed by elongated tertials, looks like a sheep.

The crane of the ancient Irish was a creature of magic, transformed, legend has it, from the skin of Aoife, princess of the Tuatha de Danann, with the legendary Crane Bag of the Fianna warriors filled with treasures.

I have been fortunate in seeing migrating birds flying at great height in v-formation and, from a distance, on the ground, in the steppe-like countryside of Extremadura in Spain and Alentejo in Portugal.

The Eurasian crane is impressive, standing at about five-feet tall with a wingspan double that.

The birds utter a far-carrying 'korr-r-r' cry (from which came its old Irish name) and which is reflected in place-names especially in the north Midlands where habitat would have been suitable.

Will the trumpeting of this royal bird be revived like the successful programme at Slimbridge? We could learn from them, but it is a matter of funding and perhaps this would be an ambitious venture for our nature charity BirdWatch Ireland, which has many calls on its slim resources.

Sunday Independent

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