Country matters: Magic birds and mysteries could sing again

Ancient peoples, especially from the Near and Far East, had a special affinity for the cranes (Grus grus), as did the settlers of this island. The birds were held in reverence as creatures of magic and mystery.

onfucius in his Book of Odes (6th century B.C.) described the great trumpet sound of the birds as they gathered for the ritual dance: “The crane screeches in the nine swamps, its voice carries to heaven.”

In the Song Dynasty, Emperor Huizong made a magnificent painting of 20 birds in flight, with calligraphy and poetry on the edges.

In Ireland, an corr was revered and considered sacred, a protected religious connection to the afterlife. There is a well known image of the bird leading a procession of men and horses seen at the foot of the North Cross at Ahenny in Co Tipperary, with its bushy tail framed by elongated tertials.

Last week, Bord na Móna released information about a pair of cranes successfully hatching chicks on rewetted bog in an undisclosed location, probably on the Central Plateau. The breeding is “of particular importance” as it is the first in more than 300 years. Two years ago there was a positive sighting of a pair of cranes with a young flying over the Rogerstown Estuary at Fingal.

Common cranes have been sighted, usually from mainland Europe. I’ve seen video images of birds walking in a cottage garden in Mayo or Sligo. These ‘birds of the sky’, according to the American writer Peter Matthiessen, once bred in large numbers on Ireland’s marshes until they were wiped out by the fashion trade’s use of tail feathers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Centuries before, the bird had been part of mythical folklore, royal pets of kings and chiefs, magical creatures transformed from the skin of Aoife, Princess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, into the Fianna’s magical crane sac filled with treasure.

The Eurasian Crane is a striking creature, standing about 5 feet tall with a wingspan twice that size, and emitting a guttural “korr-rr-ore” cry, which gave it its traditional name, Gaeilge. ‘Corr’ appears in around 1,000 place names, many in the North Midlands.

The birds perform an amazing courtship and tournament dance ritual in spring, jumping and bowing to each other and producing deep musical sounds that have fascinated human observers for thousands of years.

Bronze Age people etched prancing figures on a rock in the Italian Alps with crane-headed halberds, a battlefield weapon used continuously into the Middle Ages. Richard III met his end with one at Bosworth; The United Irishmen’s pikes in 1798 were variants.

With time and patience the unique sounds of the birds could be heard again over newly wetted, clipped moorland and, as at a famous gathering place at Lake Hornborga in Sweden, where thousands gather, be harbingers of spring, dancing and bowing as they light up the morning and trumpet their joy. Country matters: Magic birds and mysteries could sing again

Fry Electronics Team

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