Thursday, September 27, 2012

Against the hunting of the crane

from The Medieval Bestiary

It seems that, if you love birds, there's always bad news. Last night I learned from Sunwiggy about a petition to stop a law in Wisconsin that would allow people to hunt sandhill cranes.

Before I elaborate on why crane hunting is just plain wrong -- on so many levels! -- in the spirit of full disclosure I should probably tell you that cranes are among my favorite birds. I don't just "like" cranes...I have the image of one tattooed on my right calf. And also that I find autumn to be a very bittersweet time of year and so my mood is already primed for long, introspective diatribes with a general tinge of melancholy.

On the other hand, I want to assure you that my feelings are not based on a knee-jerk anti-hunting platform. In fact, I have absolutely no objection to responsible hunting, and respect the fact that hunting for one's supper is an ancient human tradition. If I were talented with a bow like one of my fictional heroes, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy, I might even be tempted to try my hand at it myself.

But not sandhill cranes.

I will start with the more practical matters first. Apparently, one of the excuses for wanting to hunt cranes is that they like to eat corn, and the mid-western states really, really like to grow corn. Opponents to the law point out that killing cranes won't have much of an impact on crop loss, and there are much better ways of addressing the issue.

Another objection is that hunters may not be able to distinguish the more common sandhill from the critically endangered whooping crane. Actually, illegal shootings of whooping cranes are a problem even without a legal "sandhill season."

And, as usual, the preliminary "studies" are riddled with flaws. I will not reiterate all that stuff here, as you can easily find it elsewhere on the Internet. One nice blog with a lot of good crane stuff also has some beautiful artwork to admire, so I encourage you to check it out if you're interested.

Now, facts are lovely, and I would hope that matters of public policy would rest upon a bedrock of them. But humans are not the Vulcans of Star Trek lore. And although I, of course, am completely rational (yes, my tongue if firmly in my cheek on that one), I will admit that my first reaction upon hearing about hunting cranes was not strictly objective.

It was personal. It was philosophical. It was even -- dare I say it? -- spiritual. We can't just run around killing anything we feel like. There are limits. What those limits are is frequently up for debate, but I think we can all agree that there are some.

First off, how about The Hunger Games? Well, if anyone reading this thinks it's OK to run around killing fellow humans for sport, then please leave my blog at once. Open-minded as I am, I really don't want to hear from you.

How about companion animals? The same state in question, Wisconsin, received a lot of flak for a proposal to kill feral cats. A lot of people feel quite a bond with cats, and got very upset at the idea of giving people permission to shoot them. We all have our favorite animals.

What about bald eagles? Song birds? Endangered animals? Why do we want to kill things, and when is it OK?

At the very root of it: what is our relationship to the world around us? Do we have any obligations to it? To other creatures who live within it? To our fellow humans who share it with us? Is the world here for our entertainment? Our livelihood? For stress relief? A sense of awe? Exactly what kind of paradigm are we running with?

I heard the news about hunting the cranes after reading an article in Audubon magazine about how attempts to limit off-road vehicles on public beaches in North Carolina has resulted in a nasty campaign of insults and harassment from those who want to continue to drive their trucks on the sand, even though doing so spoils the beach, kills endangered birds and sea turtles, and the fact that many people who visit the ocean don't really enjoy having to navigate all those vehicles and the huge, ugly ruts in the sand they leave behind.

I also had read an article in Outside magazine about attempts to clean up the beautiful Bikini atolls in the Marshall Islands, the site of the infamous atomic bomb testing in the 1940s and 1950s.

And finally, there was my own solitary walk, last weekend, across my favorite prairie at Weldon Springs State Park close to my home. I could hear a chorus of meadowlarks, but the song was subdued, somehow, and wistful, as if they were playing their rendition of Taps. The season of abundance is over. Cycles end. Every dawn is followed by twilight, spring by autumn, youth by senescence. But dawn always comes again, and once again we have spring. There is death, and there is also birth.

But this balance is precarious. Somehow, we humans have become so numerous, and so unthinkingly powerful, that we can interfere. As I walked across the prairie, I couldn't help reflecting, The state of Illinois is broke, what's to stop them from selling this precious spot of land off to the highest bidder? Who might then pave it all over and erect a hideous subdivision on top of it? Which they will then call "Meadowlark," although the birds will be long gone and the kids who grow up there will wonder, if they think of it at all between video games, just what a meadowlark is?

OK, I did warn you that this time of year makes me a bit melancholy! But what I am circling around here is my firm philosophical and spiritual belief that we are not here to exploit the natural world. It is not here for our entertainment. There are things far more important than our own personal whims.

The paradigm of exploitation -- hey, let's just run out and shoot it just for fun! -- is hardly new. When the settlers arrived in the New World, they saw the teeming plenty that greeted them as being there for their own sport. That led to the fate of the American bison, which still survive on ranches and nature preserves. The same cannot be said for the passenger pigeon. (And anyone who has read much of this blog knows the grudge I have about the extinction of that pigeon...seriously, do not get me on that topic!) (As an interesting aside, an otherwise boring book from 1823, The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, shows an aging Natty Bumppo -- better known in one of Cooper's other works, The Last of the Mohicans -- witnessing the disgusting pigeon slaughter and muttering about the pioneers' "wasty ways" for killing so much more than they needed.)

Even within the paradigm of exploitation, I have to wonder: what more do you need to kill? A perusal of the Illinois hunting and trapping seasons, for example, shows that those who enjoy such sport have an awful lot of variety already. For example, today I asked a coworker whose husband likes to hunt if it is squirrel season, as I recently saw some younger fellows with guns on one of my favorite trails and wondered what they were after.

Maybe, she said, but more likely they were after doves. Squirrel season starts in August.

Limiting oneself only to birds, there is a season for mourning dove, ring-necked pheasant, ducks, and wild turkey. If one visits a private hunting club, gray partridge and chukar are also on offer. I think that bobwhite quail and American woodcock also have their seasons, even though populations of both birds are rapidly declining. Seriously, "hunters," what more do you want?

I am not saying we should limit the seasons already in place, but at least here in Illinois, as far as I know: wild turkey have recently been reintroduced -- and rebounded in population -- after being extirpated from much of the state; ring-necked pheasant are foreign exotics bred and released specifically for the pleasure of hunters, although they have helped to extirpate the native greater prairie chicken from all but one location in the state; the numbers of many duck species are declining due to habitat loss, although duck hunting organizations do (to their credit) contribute to habitat restoration; quail and woodcock are in decline; and doves -- OK, there are about a bazillion doves around. Have at 'em.

Which leads me back to one of my original points: I have no problems with responsible hunting. With the exception of deer -- which are far too plentiful due to the extermination of their natural predators -- what does that look like? I don't know. It sure doesn't look like killing sandhill cranes.

This is one of those posts that I find hard to wrap up in a satisfactory manner. My original ending was a frenzy of indignation, and although I do feel angry at our callous treatment of the world around us, it's not the way I wanted to wrap it up.

Cranes are such ancient and beautiful creatures. In Asia they are called "the birds of heaven" because they fly so high over the mountains when they migrate. In Japan they are considered symbols of longevity and health, and chains of 1,000 origami cranes can be found on hospital doors and Shinto shrines. The town I stayed at during my high school year in Japan, Maizuru, means "dancing cranes," although cranes no longer dance there.

The dancing of cranes is one of their most beautiful habits, and humans from China, Japan, Siberia, Greece and Turkey had dancing rituals in imitation of the cranes. The Greek hero Theseus and his companions, according to Plutarch, performed a crane dance after slaying the minotaur and returning home. And the imitation can go both directions; a group of cranes will sometimes start to dance if a nearby human dances first.

The birds carry symbolic weight in the Western world as well. In Celtic tradition, they were associated with one of the crone goddesses, the Cailleach, and thus were seen as a pyschopomp, or guide to the Underworld after death. In Christian symbolism, the crane was seen to be an enemy of Satan, because they are so adept at killing snakes.

By viewing the world around us as existing merely for our own entertainment or exploitation, we do damage to the web of life that joins us together. We don't only harm the cranes or other creatures; we also diminish ourselves. We might not remember the crane dance, but I do believe that, in some quiet corner of our hearts, we sense that we have lost it.

I only know how I felt one summer morning walking at Goose Lake Prairie, when I was surprised by a pair of sandhill cranes flying up from the grasses. They were such huge, gangly creatures, and yet they looked so graceful as they jumped up in the air again and again, calling to each other. It was such a beautiful and ancient sight that I found myself literally crying with joy to be a witness to it.

I still don't know how to wrap this post up, so I will leave it there, with that memory of cranes, dancing together before me.


  1. It's so ironic that, as we are all hearing about the "N" vitamin, the benefits to our health from being out in Nature, there is less and less Nature to be out in, and fewer and fewer nonhuman creatures to be out in it with! We do have a right to the joy that comes from beholding sandhill cranes, and other beautiful beings. I hope all of your readers follow the link and sign the petition! MOM

  2. To me the most important reason this should remain illegal that you mentioned is the danger of shooting Whooping Cranes. And that alone should be reason enough!