Animal Spirits & Totems: Cranes
Cranes are large, long-necked birds that live and breed near water. Cranes that live near large bodies of water tend to be whiter in color, while those that live in forested areas near small lakes tend to have gray plumage.
Fifteen species of cranes exist in the world and all are at least threatened if not endangered. These birds are found on every continent except Antarctica and South America. The largest species is the Sarus Crane. This crane stands at six feet tall on average, with an eight-foot wing span and is the world’s tallest flying bird.
Unlike herons, for which they are often mistaken, cranes fly with their necks stretched out straight. Their long beaks can be used like spears to fish or scare predators. Their call is a sort of purr, or garbled sound, not at all like a duck or goose.
Some cranes are migratory and others stay in the same location year-round.
In recent years, the North American Sandhill crane has made an encouraging comeback. The Sandhill crane is now the only crane species that is stable and/or slowing increasing, although some subspecies, like the Florida Sandhill crane, are still endangered. Like all cranes, Sandhill cranes are very secretive about their nesting and will even daub themselves with mud to makes themselves less visible when rearing young. Recently a 10,000,000-year-old fossil of a Sandhill Crane was found in Nebraska, making it the oldest known bird species in existence.
Cranes have small families of only one or two chicks, hence their secrecy about their nests. These tend to be piles of mud and sticks hidden in remote wetlands. Cranes mate for life and start reproducing somewhere between their third and fifth year.
All cranes engage in dancing behavior especially when mating. Dancing can also be used to repel a threat. Stick tossing is often a part of a crane dance routine.
Cranes can live 20 to 30 years in the wild, but in captivity they can live much longer. The oldest in captivity lived to be 82 years old.
The two greatest threats to cranes are the destruction of their natural wetland habitats, and the capture of cranes for the illegal pet trade.
Cranes in Art
Cranes in Legend and Spirituality
Cranes have long been associated with royalty, balance, grace, and longevity. The crane is a prehistoric animal and looks like one, yet is also very beautiful and graceful.
They can often be seen standing in shallow water standing on one leg, and their beautiful dancing also speaks to their incredible sense of balance and grace
When a crane comes into your life as a spirit teacher or totem you are being asked to use your past as a source of strength in the present. They tend to appear in the lives of people who are well served by some degree of secrecy in their lives. The crane teaches about keeping your own counsel, protection of family, and balance in life above all else.
A crane totem is also a harbinger of long life and success. People with crane medicine are more revered by others than they imagine, and have long, successful lives. They are protective, wise, and gracious. They choose their battles carefully, choosing quiet wisdom and privacy over aggression.
An encounter with a crane is a powerful experience. You are being asked to look inward, show fairness to all persons, and protect your wisdom while sharing it in appropriate ways. In short, you are being shown the way to balance and good fortune.
The crane is a powerful and auspicious totem in almost all cultures. One exception is Celtic Britain, where cranes were associated with death, treachery, war, and evil women. The crane was one of the various shapes taken by the King of the Celtic Underworld, Annwn.
In China and Japan, cranes were associated with longevity, immortality, and prosperity. In Japan, because of their permanent pair bonds, cranes were often featured on bridal kimonos. Sweet cakes to be served at Japanese weddings are often baked in the shape of cranes for good luck.
As a character in Aesop’s fables, the crane is often portrayed as a problem-solver and a wise teacher. In one story, a crane retrieves a fish from a long, narrow bottle by dropping stones in it, one by one, until the fish is reached easily.
A popular Native American story features a pet crane that saves its owners from destruction at enemy hands, giving its own life in the process.
My Personal Experience
I often walk my dog around a large prairie here that is kept by a university and is open to the public. It is bordered on one side by a large woods which hides a wetland and a small lake. Wildlife is plentiful there and Sandhill cranes can often be spotted hear the wetland areas.
Several months ago, I was walking along the edge of the prairie, which has a paved path. It’s a great place to walk after a rain, because you don’t have to get the bottoms of your pants all wet or wear muck boots. As I was heading back toward my car with the dog, I heard a strange whirring sound that I did not recognize.
I looked up, and there was a large Sandhill crane flying above me, making that noise. I was so excited I almost started whooping (that’s a different sort of crane) but I didn’t, because what happened next was even more unusual (for me, anyway).
Instead of flying over us and just going about its business, the crane circled us three times as I gazed at it. My dog could not have cared less. Then, when it was sure I had seen that (or so it seemed) it continued on toward the southwest, which, oddly enough, is where our house is.
I’ve seen lots of Sandhill cranes at a distance, and have always loved their prehistoric beauty, but up until that moment I had never had one interact with me in any way. They tend to keep their distance, and who could blame them? When I got home, puzzling over it, I thought, 'Well maybe it was warning us.' But we were far from the lake and wetlands, and in fact were on the very outermost perimeter of the prairie, closer to civilization than anywhere else in the 100 acres that forms the preserve.
But I was, during that time, working with intention and protection in my spiritual life and walking in the morning was one of my main times to practice this. In fact, among other things, my practice involved learning to invoke and welcome a protective circle of light around me as I walked and trusting it to remain throughout my day.
I was also considered focusing more intently on the paranormal in my writing life, but for a number of reasons was considering writing under a pseudonym for the first time in my life. I still had some doubts and reservations about it all, but the crane circling me overhead seemed to be saying, 'Hey, you are on the right track. Keep it up.'
It seemed to me that the crane had traced and affirmed both my protective circle and my positive intent, and though it may sound strange, it was a very powerful moment for me. (I can’t speak for the crane.)
Have you had experiences with cranes? If so, please feel free to share them here.
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