Eagle vs. Crane

by wjw on February 26, 2008

No, this isn’t a post about competing kung-fu styles.

This is about the natural world.

On Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of cranes passing overhead. Thousands of them.

It was the day they’d all picked to migrate north.

When we got outside to begin our yearly task of burning last summer’s dried-out weeds, we saw sandhill cranes from horizon to horizon, one huge V after another, each V composed of many smaller Vs.

The sound was huge.

When one of the formations hit an updraft, the formations would split and they would all begin to spiral upward, coasting on the rising air. There seemed to be one of these right over our house, so there was always this huge funnel of cranes more or less directly overhead.

Many dry weeds were given another few days of existence because we kept stopping our work to stare.

At one point I noticed, in the fields to the north, a couple low-flying large birds that were not cranes. I assumed they were vultures, and then I saw the sun gleaming off white tail feathers, and recognized a bald eagle. (I never did work out what the other big bird was. Possibly another eagle, it never got close enough for me to be certain.)

It’s not possible to mistake a bald eagle for anything else. Their white head and tail just blaze in the sun. It’s impossible not to be thrilled by the sight.

A large percentage of cranes that die during their migration are taken by eagles or large hawks, so from this point on I watched with great interest.

The eagle flapped closer and joined the upward-spiraling group of cranes, obviously with the intent of being mistaken for a crane just long enough to grab one. This went on for some time, with no sign of alarm among the cranes, but the eagle never seemed to get close enough to strike.

Eventually the eagle gave up on that group of cranes, and moved on another group just coming up from the south. The eagle flew with surprising speed— maybe it was also diving, I couldn’t tell.

The cranes saw it coming and their formation dissolved into a scrambling cloud as they fled across the Rio to the east. Eventually they all grew to small for me to distinguish one type of bird from another.

Whether the eagle got its dinner, I cannot say. But it was certainly a feast for the eyes.

I haven’t seen or heard any cranes since, so apparently they all moved on the same day. Since this was a day after a storm dropped a couple feet of snow on the Rockies, I imagine they’re having a chill time wherever they are.

It always seems to me that they fly too early. But then I’m not a crane.

Oz February 27, 2008 at 2:53 am

Cool post. Evocative. Thanks.

Dave Bishop February 27, 2008 at 10:37 am

Wow! That must have been pretty awe-inspiring! I’ve read about crane migration, and seen it on TV, but it must be amazing to witness it for real.
Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

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