Country Matters: Birds of magic and mystery could sing once again

Ancient peoples, particularly from the Middle and Far East, had a particular affinity with cranes (G rus grus) as did those who settled on this island. The birds were held in awe as creatures of magic and mystery.

onfucius in his Book of Odes (6th century BC) described the great trumpeting sound of the birds as they assembled to perform ritual dancing: “The crane cries in the nine marshes, its voice carrying to heaven.”

In the Song dynasty, the emperor Huizong produced a great painting of 20 birds in flight, inscribed on the margins with calligraphy and poetry.

In Ireland, “an corr” was revered and considered sacred, a protected religious link to the afterworld. There is a noted image of the bird, leading a procession of men and horses, to be seen on the base of the North Cross at Ahenny in Co Tipperary, with its bushy tail framed by elongated tertials.

Last week Bord na Móna released information on a crane pair successfully hatching chicks on rewetted bog at an unidentified location, probably in the midlands. The breeding was “of particular significance” as it was the first in more than 300 years. Two years ago there was a positive sighting of a crane pair with a juvenile flying over Rogerstown Estuary in Fingal.

There have been regular sightings of cranes, usually weather-borne from mainland Europe. I have seen video images of birds walking about a cottage garden in Mayo or Sligo These “birds of heaven”, so described by the American writer Peter Matthiessen, once bred in great numbers across Ireland’s bogland tracts until they were wiped out by the millinery trade’s use of tail feathers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Centuries earlier the bird had been part of mythical folklore, royal pets of kings and chieftains, creatures of magic, transformed from the skin of Aoife, princess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, into the magical crane bag of the Fianna filled with treasures.

The Eurasian crane is a striking creature, standing about five feet tall with a wingspan twice that, uttering a guttural “korr-r-r-ore” cry, which gave it its traditional name as Gaeilge. “Corr” turns up in about 1,000 place names, many in the north midlands.

The birds perform an amazing mating, jousting dance ritual in the spring, leaping and bowing to one another, making deep musical sounds which have fascinated human observers for thousands of years.

Bronze Age man etched prancing figures holding crane-headed halberds, a battlefield weapon in continuous use up to medieval times, on a rock in the Italian Alps. Richard III met his end with one at Bosworth; the United Irishmen’s pikes in 1798 were variants.

With time and patience, the birds’ unique sounds could be heard again over newly wetted cutaway bog landscapes and, as at a famous gathering site at Lake Hornborga in Sweden, where thousands meet, be messengers of spring, bringing light to the mornings as they prance and bow and trumpet their joy.

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