(April 19 note — because someone asked and it’s a good question. The interaction I saw was nothing like the amazing sandhill crane mating dance I’ve watched with wonder in the past.)
Sandhill cranes walk slowly and deliberately, lifting a foot, then a leg, then moving foot and leg forward, to place the foot on the ground, settling it before lifting the next foot, then the leg, moving both forward, to place the foot onto the ground. Slowly. Deliberately.
Walking with cranes, I became aware of every motion they made, every movement I made – aware of my own joints, my own foot lifting, my leg moving forward, my foot placed on the ground, firmly and gently. The three cranes walked smoothly forward. I paralleled them, not fifty feet away. All was quiet. The world had focused down to three cranes, a field, and the motion.
I was walking with cranes.
Then two other cranes appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Two cranes walking, lifting a foot, then a leg, then moving forward… two cranes walking. Towards the three cranes; I stopped moving.
The threesome faced the twosome for a silent moment before crane-chaos broke loose. The twosome first let loose their cacophonous call, lifting their heads and baring their throats to send prehistoric song into the sky. A chorus from only two out of the threesome followed, the smaller of the threesome having opted out, stepping back and away. The pairs proceeded to swap calls and challenges. Abruptly the calls turned to clash.
A battle ensued. Two by two they fought, in what appeared as ritualized combat. There was little contact at first; one crane would leap over another in slow motion, his widespread wings caught by the wind, keeping him aloft, to float over his opponent, who ducked gracefully beneath the other bird. Like a choreographed ballet, the cranes leapt and drifted over and under each other.
All changed when one bird thrust its shoulder into another, and exactly like a football player he pushed and shoved the other crane until that bird fell over, toppling backwards. Feet clenched they wrestled, the football-player crane perched on top of the struggling bird sprawled on its back. They broke loose suddenly, the defeated crane taking flight, pursued by the conqueror.
The warfare stopped all other motion. The three other cranes and myself stood frozen during the battle. The non-combatant cranes seemed shocked. Something had happened. Now silence.
Off in the distance, guttural crane calls echoed, the end of the story unfolding beyond sight.
Then we started walking. The remaining cranes took their path and I went my own way, walking slowly and deliberately, lifting a foot, then a leg, placing the foot gently and firmly on the ground, lifting the next foot. Slowly. Moving forward. Deliberately.