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sandhill and whooping cranes

14 february 2012

Migratory cranes, including the fabled whooping crane, fly over Dallas and Ft Worth every year on their way from the Gulf Coast to northern North America and back again. I never see them, whether because they fly at such heights that they're effectively unnoticeable, or (more likely) because I am pretty oblivious as a birdwatcher.

Paul Johnsgard's book Sandhill and Whooping Cranes is part enumeration and part guidebook. It's a brief exposition of current knowledge about migratory cranes. Much more of it is about sandhill cranes than about whooping cranes. There are, after all, thousands of times more sandhill cranes than whooping cranes; and the whooping crane is a hugely charismatic ecological success story with lots of its own literature.

Johnsgard writes lyrically, if too briefly, about the allure of the vast flocks of sandhill cranes that make their way through his stomping grounds in Nebraska every year. The massing and flight of these cranes has inspired other recent literature, notably Richard Powers's fine novel The Echo Maker (2006). But Johnsgard, a distinguished naturalist, has more on his mind than just poetry. Conservation and ethology loom large on his agenda as well. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes serves as an invitation to the general public to share his interests and participate in his larger mission.

Sandhill cranes don't need saving the way whooping cranes do. There are countless thousands of them, and to agribusinesses they often seem a nuisance. They are hunted for sport in many states: what's a few cranes more or less? Of course, people thought the same way about the passenger pigeon.

Johnsgard, Paul A. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes: Ancient voices over America's wetlands. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.