The history, habits, life and lore of a resourceful and iconic bird.
Long in neck, leg and wing, cranes are imposing wading birds that are among the largest and tallest of the world's bird families. Cranes are found on all continents except South America and Antarctica. They are typically associated with open wetland and grassland habitats, where their bright plumage, graceful proportions and convivial nature are displayed in elaborate dancing and duet calling. Those species that breed in the northern regions of North America and Eurasia undertake long migrations each spring and fall. Cranes choose life-long mates and are devoted parents that raise their young with both tenderness and determination.
Cranes traces the history of these fascinating birds from their early origins in the Mesozoic Era to the present day. The book covers anatomy, feeding habits, mating rituals, habitats, caring for the chicks, migration and seasonal movements. A special section is devoted to cranes in myth and folklore. Species profiles are included, along with range maps and conservation status of:
Emphasis is given to the whooping crane as a case study of the environmental and human pressures that threaten the existence of all family members. Through the tireless efforts of many dedicated researchers and volunteers, this species is slowly being brought back from the edge of extinction. Operation Migration, the project to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States, is profiled in a special chapter of Cranes.
Janice Hughes is a biology professor at Lakehead University. A member of the Society of Conservation Biologists and the American Ornithologists' Union, she is also the author of The Royal Ontario Museum Field Guide to the Birds of Ontario. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
If science fiction were reality, humans would be the consummate terraformers, modifying other worlds to support their own existence. Yet in our more tangible 21st-century tragedy, we humans have not stretched out our hands to the stars to sustain the burgeoning masses, we have merely fed unsustainably upon our home resources. The victims of our actions are not alien races, but the two million plant and animal species with which we share this small blue planet.
Since human survival became a dominant ecological process on earth a hundred millennia ago, other species have inevitably borne the burden of our extravagances. The first evidence of this occurred during the cyclical glaciations of the Pleistocene epoch, when over 80 percent of the world's megafauna -- animals greater than 100 pounds (44 kg) -- disappeared from the face of the earth. Extraordinary creatures such as mammoths, giant ground sloths and saber-tooth cats fell systematically, coincident not with climatic change but with the arrival of humans. These extinctions were followed by the loss of island species -- moas, elephant birds, giant lemurs -- that had evolved in secluded paradise, blissfully ignorant of a predator's needs. Anything that was large enough to feed a family or slow enough to kill with little effort was eaten to extinction.
Soon, however, humans would invent the means to take down those animals once too swift or too wily to grace the dinner table. We also learned to adapt the land for our own uses, swallowing up vast tracts of diverse habitat and converting it to a veritable biological wasteland. Known as the "sixth wave," we now bear witness to a mass extinction crisis that rivals the severity of five great extinction events that happened deep in the geological past, during the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous periods. Biologists have suggested that the rapid loss of species experienced in the past five centuries is at least 1,000 times higher than expected background extinction rates occurring gradually through species turnover. Unlike the first five waves, which can be attributed to natural processes such as volcanism, asteroid impact and plate tectonics, the current extinction phenomenon must be blamed almost entirely on humans. At our hands, the world's biota is quickly succumbing to habitat loss, over-exploitation, pollution, invasion of exotic species and global climate change. The World Conservation Union currently lists 16,119 species at risk of extinction in the near future. Among these threatened plants and animals are one in three amphibian species, one in four mammals, one in eight bird species and one in four coniferous trees. Standing tall amid these desperate numbers are nine species of cranes.
Cranes are among the most severely threatened of all bird families. Virtually all 15 species have suffered significant reductions in their geographic distributions and population numbers. Whooping, red-crowned and Siberian cranes are currently listed as endangered. Six other species are considered vulnerable to extinction, and another is near threatened. The reasons cranes have suffered more than other avian groups are complex. They have been exploited for trade and commerce, and they have conflicted with humans for agricultural resources. Many species are reliant on the world's endangered wetlands for food and nest sites. Moreover, most cranes are migratory and, thus, have requirements for survival that often span thousands of miles, from their northern breeding territories to southern wintering grounds, and include each night's stopover en route. Their world understands no political boundaries yet they are subject to the whims of local, regional and national governments in times of both decline and recovery. Finally, cranes are constrained by their own biology, for they have evolved in tune with a life history strategy that favors long life and slow population growth, one that is fully at odds with the anthropogenic crises that they confront.
In our comfortable North American existence, we have come to believe that all unpleasant things happen somewhere else. Our small planet seems adequately large when laying blame for what we see on the evening news; the greatest affronts to our earth -- overpopulation, exploitation, environmental disaster and mass extinction -- must certainly be the fault of another hemisphere. However, not all threatened species can be so easily swept under the rug, particularly not one so magnificent as the whooping crane. This most endangered crane was not made so out of the desperate need of abject poverty, or even the ignorance of its biological merit. The North American people created one of the world's most endangered species and, for a time as it declined rapidly into oblivion, they knowingly hastened the process. The plight of the whooping crane is an epic tale, not bedecked in pomp and circumstance, but laced heavily with the injuries of cruelty and indifference. Yet all good stories have heroes and villains, and whooping cranes have known both. This book will unravel the tale of their near extinction and their slow climb back from the brink as it reveals those humans that played a hand in the journey; for this, too, is their story.
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