Cranes on the horizon: Mythic bird could be on verge of Irish comeback

Return would be a great success for Bord na Móna’s peatland biodiversity measures

Cranes in courting dance. Illustration: Michael Viney

Cranes in courting dance. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Like a guilty, cultural echo, the word “crane” hangs on, at least in parts of the west, as an everyday word for the heron. How marvellous, at last, to find the real bird signalling its return, and this to an Irish landscape itself on its way back to nature.

The pair of common cranes now ensconced on a floating nest among the reeds “somewhere” on a rewetted, midlands Bord na Móna bog have not, as I write, yielded young. Breeding attempts in the past two years were unsuccessful.

Such gradual re-engagement with a fresh environment is not unusual, and new pairs of common cranes usually take several years to rear fledglings successfully. But third time lucky would return this great bird to Ireland after more than 300 years.

Like the first appearances of little egrets, colonising Irish creeks and estuaries over past decades, the Eurasian crane, Grus grus, has been sighted increasingly in Irish skies, its long neck stretched straight ahead, not curved like the hunch of the heron.

A memorable fluke of migration brought some 70 cranes to Ireland in 2011. Their lofty, trailing chevrons, borne on southeasterly winds, ranged up the west coast from Co Cork until the last few landed to hunt earthworms at Belderrig on the north Mayo coast. I’m sorry I wasn’t looking up at the right time or can tell where they went from there.

As the draining of European wetlands destroyed its habitat, the main natural breeding grounds of the crane held on in Scandinavia, the Baltic and the north of Russia. But improved protection brought them back to Germany, and hand-reared reintroductions by the Great Crane Project in the UK have been a major conservation success.

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They followed signals of natural recolonisation similar to those in Ireland and focused on the wetlands of the southwest, notably the Somerset Levels. In 2020, a record year, 64 pairs of cranes fledged 23 young.

Loud mating

For birds sometimes called “secretive” as nesters, a spring gathering of cranes is often anything but. The mating season is heralded by their loud, trumpeting calls and wild, prancing courtship dances, the great wings spread and beaks tilted absurdly to the sky.

Thousands of Swedes gather to watch and marvel at this spectacle each spring. As for the whooping cry, it astonished Padraic Fogarty, chief campaigner for the Irish Wildlife Trust, on a creek of the Shannon in a recent April. “Something between a lost child and a strangled cat,” he wrote, “[it] filled me with terror and curiosity in equal measure.”

In his splendidly militant book Whittled Away, Fogarty offered the historic fate of the crane as the loss of “one of our most intimate links with nature”. As documented in another, quite massive, paperback self-published in 2016, the links are indeed profound, reaching into ancient Irish culture and beliefs.

Lorcan O’Toole, author of Corr Scéal: Crane Notions, is more immediately honoured for his years of work in Donegal in reintroducing golden eagles to Ireland. But his “notions” about the crane, pursued over nearly a decade, have shown an equal commitment, if not obsession.

The ancient and widespread presence of the crane shows up in the bones at many archaeological sites. A search for traces in Irish placenames found some 37, if “Cor” could refer to the bird rather than a round hill. Among traces in the language, O’Toole found the old word corrmarguighidh, meaning “rabble”, which he thought “could relate to tame or feral cranes”.

Bowing birds

Fledgling cranes can be easily fixated on a human attendant, which may explain their role as a domestic pet, the peata corr. This intrigued another writer and artist, Gordon D’Arcy, who, in Ireland’s Lost Birds (1999) described a Middle Ages custom to parade cranes before table at dinner, the birds kneeling or bowing the head when a bishop gave benediction.

A special reverence for the crane gave the bald red patch on its crown a place in the Book of Kells, and images of the bird are carved into the base of an eighth-century cross at Ahenny, Co Tipperary. But O’Toole has reached past Christian relics and references, and even the fables of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, to seek links to a pacifistic Atlantic animism in which the crane was a magical source of wisdom.

This prompted his comment on the random crane incursion of 2011 as an omen of “spiritual and scientific” significance. His feeling for the bird’s past role fed hopes for just the midlands revival that could now be under way.

For Mark McCorry, Bord na Móna’s chief ecologist, the return of the bird would notch up a great success for the agency’s measures for restoring peatland biodiversity. With any luck, and perhaps some precautions, they will not encourage the crane’s immemorial predator, the fox.

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