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The Cranes were Calling

I live under the migratory path of cranes. The bird, the largest bird in Europe with a wingspan of 2 metres is also the largest migrating bird. In the breeding season and summer months they live in Russia, Poland and Germany as well as other countries of the north. In October and November they fly south down across France for the winter. They fly to N. Africa, Spain and just south of Bordeaux to an area known as Les Landes. They begin the voyage back north in February. They have been doing this for eternity. This year a huge number of flights were seen during the weekend of 9/10 November.

I was walking in the little valley next to the house, and then through our woods and there were so many I gave up counting. Small flights, large flights, ragged flights and straggler flights. One flight was so long it seemed to stretch all the way back to Poland.


You can hear them calling before you see them. The name gru is for their call as it was thought to sound like a harsh gru gru. Within the flights they fly in family groups, the parent birds guiding the young. And I always think they are circling over the house, pointing it out as a landmark but in truth they are catching the thermals.


The word pedigree comes from the pied du grue, (Anglo-Norman pe de grue) as this has branches which could be said to show lines of succession. A symbol of family trees.

Isabella of Angoulême would have seen the cranes flying over Lusignan or Angoulême and the first page of Part 3 of The Tangled Queen describes them. A reviewer has described Part 3 as ‘the best of a very fine trilogy. And page one is a gem!’

The sky was full of the poignant cries of a flock of cranes. Stragglers, very late to leave the north and fly south across the Aquitaine to the south, to warmth. Isabella watched them circling above Lusignan, gathering the wind to help them beat on. Three or four family groups joined together, the parents guiding the young to the marshlands beyond Bordeaux, and down to the coasts of Navarre and Castile. She glanced up at Melusine coiled under the eaves of the church and wondered if she would like to fly with them, take her family from this rocky promontory in the middle of the Poitou and go somewhere warmer where she could bask in the sun and feel the heat on her serpent coils.

But it has to be admitted that the cranes then, in the 13th century, may well have been hunted. To quote a paper written about this that looks at archaeological evidence:-


Better than any other bird, the Crane grus grus symbolises the significance of wildfowl in medieval society… as has been noted aside from the symbolic dove and eagle, ‘this species is almost certainly the commonest of all birds in English manuscripts’.


It is also frequently mentioned in medieval documents and its bones, sometimes bearing butchery marks, are not infrequently found on archaeological sites of the period. The suggestion, however, that medieval people may have ‘dined on crane’ may seem extremely unlikely if we consider that adult cranes are tough, gross, sinewy and engender a ‘melancholique bloud’. (Umberto Albarella and Richard Thomas They dined on crane: bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England, Acta zoologica cracoviensia, Vol. 45 (special issue) (2002)

There were stories about cranes swallowing sand to weigh themselves down to resist the force of the wind, of lining up in strict military rows before take-off, guards keeping watch at night on a disciplined rota basis, and of supporting tired birds as they flew.  Many stories and myths.  Rather like Isabella of Angoulême, there is always a story, a myth, some truth and some facts.  There is a charming video made by the British Library animating the myths.

In England there has been a successful rebreeding programme for the cranes. Here in Europe they seem safe and everyone looks forward to hearing them and seeing them.

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