I’d headed out for an afternoon photo shoot, but my heart wasn’t in it. Truth be told, I was sick of the snow and taking pictures of it. I was fortunate, however, as good luck jerked me out of my bad attitude.
I was on the last leg of my journey, when I spied them. A pair of Sandhill Cranes was standing with their backs to me in a field that had cornstalk remnants poking through the deep snow. I noticed their hind feathers were rusty in color, indicating they’d been preening with mud stained with iron oxide.
They turned and slowly began walking towards the south. I noticed the great size differential between the male and female; they typically mate for life. And then something magical began to happen.
The cranes moved close together and their feathers began to ruffle. I’d seen this once before and knew they were beginning a pair bonding dance.
Pair bonding is part of the courtship dancing skills that Sandhill Cranes go through. The dancing facilitates strong committed pair bonds, but also allows them to assess the status of one another throughout their long lives, sometimes two decades or longer. When I’d seen pair bonding at another time, the cranes weren’t this close. I wondered if they were actually mating.
Then the birds started to dance more separately. The female appeared more subdued while the male continued to fluff his feathers and move around.
He put on quite a show, extending his plumage in several directions. What a magnificent dancer he was! Cranes get lots of practice dancing. While much of the dancing is related to courting, sometimes spontaneous dancing displays occur for no apparent reason. Parents also educate their chicks in pair bonding, dancing with them for the entire first year of their lives.
Once the dance was over, both cranes stood there, opened their bills, and vocalized with their trumpeting call. It was clear what their exuberance was about and it made me laugh out loud.
The cranes next started an elaborate, contortionist preening. Maybe they’d shaken loose feathers with their dancing and needed to get things back in order. Preening is a regular part of bird health.
The cranes finished their preening and walked off to the north. After a while, they stopped. The male was watchful while the female dug into the snow. I don’t know if she was gathering food or putting together a nest. Regardless, my time with the cranes had completely driven away my grumpiness. Being out in nature can do that, you know.