As we crossed the Atherton Tableland, I was delighted to see that the brolgas were arriving. Brolgas are Australian cranes, and we saw them in fields and along streams as we crossed the rich farmland outside Cairns. (Brolgas are found in lots of places besides Queensland, but this was the first time I’d seen them in anything other than books.)
Cranes are among the tallest birds in the world. They are elegant, graceful creatures with long legs and long necks. Like most cranes, Australia’s brolga has a splash of red on its head. (Actually, only two species of crane don’t have red patches: the blue crane and the demoiselle crane.) These splashes of red can range from a small patch to most of the head. Cranes use these patches to threaten challengers or intruders, crouching down to make sure the patch is clearly visible. This patch is not feathered. The red is skin, and blood flow to the patch when the bird is in a defensive posture makes it redder.
Cranes range from above the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South Africa, and they can be found on all continents except South America and Antarctica. Cranes feature in Australian Aboriginal and Native American legends and European folklore, and some species are considered sacred in Asia.
Loud calls and joyous dancing are among the things that make cranes fun to encounter. The dancing—leaps, bows, runs, and short flights—is done by young and old alike, both for serious matters such as courtship, but also just for fun—or because everyone else is doing it. (When a few start, everyone may join in.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to see a number of species of crane in the wild, primarily the brolga in Australia (pictured below) and the sandhill crane in North America. If you love birds and happen to be visiting the Midwest of the United States, you can see far more—in fact, all known species of crane—at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Here’s their website for more information: http://www.savingcranes.org/