The first crane I ever saw is a bird burned permanently in my memory. It came out of nowhere and flew close by, staying in view lit by a nearly setting sun for about five wing beats. A gun was raised to shoot it but the trigger was not pulled.
I was a teenager, and the brother of a co-worker invited me to go hunting with him. The idea was not for me to actually hunt, but rather, for me to see what hunting was all about. It was a social gesture and a manly gesture. If I like hunting perhaps I would join one of their hunting groups, get a firearm, learn to shoot, and become one of the boys. I went along out of curiosity, not yet knowing that I would later devote a significant part of my life to the study of hunting (and gathering) as a way of life, though sensing (correctly) that I would never be a hunter in the US. I had spent by that age enormous amounts of time alone in the wilderness, and that sense of intentional loneliness and studied solitude was occasionally, though rarely, broken by the sound of gunfire. More to the point, though, there were many weeks of the year when my forays into the mountains could not happen because the hunters had taken over the woods. Also, I knew that my own efforts to get close to wildlife (physically close, that is) were thwarted by their skittishness which, in turn, resulted form their being blasted at by my fellow humans. So I wasn’t anti-hunting (any more … as a younger kid I was very much so) but hunting annoyed me. So I didn’t see myself doing it any more than I saw myself engaging in the other activity that ruined the wild mountains near where I grew up (downhill skiing).
But I went anyway. Curiosity.
Our quarry was the elusive and tasty woodcock. I find it funny that hunters, prone to dick jokes, hunt this particular bird. And not only do they shoot the woodcock but later they eat it. But I digress.
We were after woodcock, which is a tiny woodland bird with long beak and an overall sandpiper-like body. We went down to an island on the Hudson River where there was both good woodcock habitat and good duck habitat. The idea was this: We’d check out the duck habitat, observe the ducks, figure out where a good place to shoot the ducks from might be, work out the approach to the duck-spot, and so on, and while we were there if any woodcock dared to spring into view as they tend to so late in the afternoon, the hour before sunset, we’d blast them. And later, eat them. In a non sexual way, of course. Meanwhile, the intelligence gathered regarding the ducks would be used by my hunting companion during duck hunting season, which as I understood it was coming up.
It was on this trip to the river-island, by the way, that I learned that duck hunters are not allowed to shoot the duck while it is in the water. You have to wait until it flies into the air. That told me quite a bit about what bird hunting entails … it is as much, or more, about shooting as it is about hunting. I also suddenly realized the meaning of the term “sitting duck.” Prior to that I had not thought about it much.
So we checked out the duck habitat, and wandered back and forth among the clearing and brushy woods and water spots, mostly quietly, when suddenly we saw the crane. I had never seen a crane before. It came out of nowhere, and in just a few long and slow wing beats traversed the open sky and disappeared beyond the treeline. The moment the bird came to view my companion raised his shotgun and threw the cocking mechanism and safety. By the third wing beat he clearly had a bead on the bird. He kept his aim steady as the bird flew out of sight, but he never pulled the trigger.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I dunno. But I’m pretty sure it’s not in season.”
“That why you didn’t shoot it?”
I was impressed that he was able to raise the gun and not fire it. That was good. That meant that if there was some endangered species flying around among non-endangered species that were being hunted, a hunter, with skill, could avoid shooting the endangered ones and only shoot the non-endangered one. I wondered if all hunters were this skilled. Or not.
Then, moments, even seconds, later, something else flew into view and he raised his shotgun and fired.
And a thing came reeling down out of the sky landing pretty close to us.
“Woodcock!” he yelled. I was impressed that he was able to spot the bird and fire so quickly and actually hit the thing. Yes, yes, this sport was about shooting more than anything else.
So we walked over to it and as we got close I could see it still moving, either not quite dead or twitching from nerves. And as we got close enough I could see that it was not a woodcock. It wasn’t even a bird. It was a bat, trying to crawl away using its wings. The hunter stepped on it and killed it.
“Oh well,” he said.
I was no longer impressed.
Stop the Kentucky Sandhill Crane hunt. Click here for more information.