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Owen G. Mordaunt


If there was ever a creature that has been held in high esteem by naturalists, it’s the crane (collectively cranes). What has been written about these diurnal migratory birds in books and articles reflects the awe and admiration felt for them. The communication system (or “language”) of sandhill cranes is the topic of this paper. Relevant questions asked are: How do sandhill cranes communicate? What are some characteristics of their communication system?

The question as to whether language is the exclusive property of the human species has been a topic of discussion for decades. Also, the idea of animals talking is as old and as widespread among human societies as language itself. And in all cultures, legends give speaking roles to animals. It is therefore germane to explore some thoughts on what linguists say about human language versus non-human communication and try to tie this to sandhill crane communication. Both animals and humans communicate, and this capacity to communicate is innate. Bickerton notes:
          The trouble is that the difference between language and the most sophisticated
          systems of animal communication that we are so far aware of are the
          qualitative rather than the quantitative. All such systems have a fixed and finite
          number of topics on which information can be exchanged, whereas in language
          the list is open-ended, indeed infinite . . . and there are subtler, but equally far
          reaching differences between language and animal communication that make it
          impossible to regard one as the antecedent of the other. (8)

Linguists argue that differences between human language and non-human communication exist. So, is the communication system of the sandhill cranes, for example, different from human communication? Arbitrariness seems to characterize human communication, i.e., there is no direct connection between the form of a word and its meaning. There is no reason, for example, why a four-legged creature which barks is called a dog. Some sounds in English seem to echo the sounds of objects or activities and hence seem to have a less arbitrary connection. Some examples of these sounds are cuckoo, SPLASH, slurp or whirr (Yule 10). These are onomatopoeic words and are rarely used in human communication.
For the majority of animals, including sandhill cranes, there does seem to be a connection between the conveyed message and the signal used to convey it. This is because the general impression with regard to animal communication is that the signal system is non-arbitrary and therefore finite. This means that each kind of animal communication seems to be limited to fixed sets of vocal or gestural forms; and as scientists have determined, many of these forms are used in specific situations for purposes of survival, such a staking out a territory, territory advertisement, social interaction, notifying others of a nearby predator, finding food, or finding a mate. Animal communication is thus unambiguous and predictable, whereas human communication is ambiguous and unpredictable. A typical human ambiguous utterance is the following: Mary hit the man with the book. It is not clear in this statement whether Mary hit the man with a book or whether the man Mary hit was carrying a book. This type of communication does not typify animal communication.

     In contrast, human beings create new expressions and novel utterances by using their linguistic resources and a finite number of linguistics rules or resources to describe new objects and situations. This property is described as ”productivity (or ‘creativity’ or ‘open-endedness’)” (Yule 10), and it is linked to the fact that the humans can potentially create an infinite number of utterances in any human language. “Language,” according to Winkler, “is an open system with almost limitless potential for creativity and innovation as long as the basic syntactic rules are followed” ( 22). The communication systems of non-humans do not appear to allow this type of flexibility. A vervet monkey has thirsty-six vocal calls, for example, and a cicada has four signals to choose from. Worker bees communicate about the location of the nectar source to other bees, but will fail to do so if that location is changed and the bees are not aware of the change. Linguists argue that humans use language to express complex ideas and emotions, but bonobos also express emotions. Humans use language to negotiate social relationships, but we do no know how social beings like the sandhill cranes negotiate relationships, if they ever do. They seem to operate instinctively instead creatively and in predetermined or fixed manner. We know that animal communication is generally fixed. In addition, attempts to teach animals (especially the most intelligent) to manipulate human language have evidenced some success, but animals fall far too short of what humans actually do with language. Parrots, for example, can mimic human language but cannot use it creatively.

     Linguists perceive a dichotomy between “language” or “nonhuman communication” (See also the comparisons in Table1-1 in Rowe and Devine 11), naturalists and other people who have a reverence for nature (Native Americans, in particular) may very well not have a problem with calling the sandhill crane’s communication system, “language, ” particularly if they are not linguists. Jon Morrison in his article “Sandhill Cranes of Bosque del Apache” unequivocally states that “cranes use “language to control and organize social interaction” (1). Michael Forsberg in On Ancient Wings, reflecting on his observation of sandhill cranes, says he heard them talking but does not understand what they are saying:
      I will never forget the first time I saw sandhill cranes come to roost on the Platte           River—strange, ancient figures with long legs and trumpeting voices filling the sky           and falling so gracefully like autumn leaves silhouetted against a river set afire by the           sunset.
          Not will I forget the first time I spent all night on a midriver sandbar in a dugout blind.           Amid thousands of cranes, I eavesdropped on their conversations, rising and falling           harmonic waves as mesmerizing as ocean swells breaking onshore, in a language I           am sure humans just don’t yet understand. (105)

Steve Grooms refers to courtship gestures as “social language” (95) and speech sounds made by cranes as “babble” since their mode of communication unintelligible to humans (98).
Sandhill cranes communicate primarily through physical displays and vocalizations. Adult sandhill cranes have a repertoire of more than a dozen calls, which can be described as different types of “trills,” “purrs” and “rattles” (Harris and Kirksbaum). Grooms mentions specific features of communication (termed “calls”) employed by Grus cranes sandhill cranes that have been identified and gives credit to Archibald (98):
          1.          The “stress call” is made by chicks when they are “frightened, hungry of unhappy about being separated from their parents.”
          2.          The “food- begging call’ is a sound that disappears from their lexicon after cranes reach 12 months of age, when they can feed themselves.
          3.          The “contact call” is purring call used by chicks, but it is also used by adults. This sound is feline in nature and is made when cranes are contented.
          4.          The “flight-intention call” is made when cranes begin to fly; and they issue a rapid, high-pitched sound when confronted by something frightening.
          5.         The “guard call” is uttered by the chick or colt and its parents when threatened by other cranes or some other danger. This call is often acquired after the crane’s voice changes, just under a year.
          6.         The “location call” is a plaintive call acquired by young cranes and is used to re-establish contact with family members after separation. Amazingly, sandhill cranes are able to find each other among thousands of staging cranes. (98-100)
Another sound specified by Paul A. Johnsgard is the ”unison call,” a mutual calling of paired cranes used for purposes of “social bonding.” He considers this call the most important contact call and is developed in the second or third years of life. It is complex and consists of an expansive series of notes uttered by paired birds (13, 14). In addition, Johnsgard makes reference (in Those of the Gray Wind?: The Sandhill Crane) to the parent cranes communicating with chicks, also known as colts: “Each day, whenever their parents called them, the chicks would reply with the baby peeping calls, but as the birds grew, these calls became stronger and began to acquire a more rattling character, sounding like a prolonged pe-e-e-e---e-rrr (64)

          These aspects of crane communication that have been observed and confirmed are crucial to understanding the language or communication strategies of sandhill cranes, but gaps may still exist in the knowledge that naturalists and others have acquired on these amazing migratory creatures. The current body of knowledge is however fairly extensive, transcending all the interesting mythological information (extant) on the venerated crane.

Various people who have written about cranes have done so with passion, sensitivity, love and affection for these creatures whose exquisite elegance, beauty, human characteristics, socialization, lasting relationships, communication, and so on, are difficult to ignore. Linguists generally make reference to the robin as the prototypical bird, but naturalists who comment on cranes seem, to me, to elevate the crane to an almost god-like status. Therefore, if naturalists were to decide which bird should be designated the prototypical bird, the sandhill crane would most likely give the robin stiff competition. Johnsgard is so intrigued by the cranes that at the end of his book, Crane Music, he unflinchingly places the cranes at a level equal to that of angels:
          If I had to choose between never hearing an angelic chorus or never again hearing           wild cranes, I would most certainly choose the cranes. I have indeed often wondered           if the angels that were “heard on high” above Bethlehem were not really migrating           Eurasian cranes--at least that’s a pleasant thought to contemplate. (124)

Yes, the music of cranes, to Johnsgard and other zealots, deemed as divine.
A fitting conclusion to this discussion is the powerful tribute to the sandhill cranes made by photographer and writer, Michael Forsberg, who, as already been stated, eavesdropped on “their” conversations on the Platte River in Nebraska:
I learned more about the lives and challenges of these tall, elegant birds with human-like mannerisms than I ever imagined. I found that people associated with cranes and conservation are among the most wonderful, passionate and caring people I have ever met. But most important, I discovered cranes are soulful birds and ambassadors of good will that connect habitats, cultures and people beyond social, political or economic borders, and in their own magical ways reveal the beauty of creation, carrying with them – whenever you may find them – gifts of joy, hope and wonder, on ancient wings. (13)

Whether one considers the vocalizations or calls of sandhill cranes language or a communication system specific to a particular species, in light of what has been articulated about them, these amazing ancient birds (and all species of cranes) deserve our due respect as “soulful birds and ambassadors of goodwill” which span and link continents. And with them (veritable icons in Native American cultures), we can share the meditation:

Spring, 1860
When our Earth Mother is replete with
living waters,
When spring comes,
The source of our flesh
All the different kinds of corn
We shall lay to rest in the ground
With their Earth Mother’s living waters,
They will be made into new beings . . .
That our Earth Mother
May wear a fourfold green robe,
Full of moss,
Full of flowers,
Full of pollen,
That the land may be thus
I have made into living wings.
Zuñi Prayer (qtd. In Those of the Gray Wind 1)

                    Works Cited

Bickerton, B. Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Forsberg, Michael. On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes of North America. Lincoln, NE:         Michael Forsberg Photography, 2004.
Grooms, Steve. The Cry of the Sandhill Crane. Minocqua, WI: Northwest Press, 1992.
Johnsgard, Paul A. Crane Music. Washington. D.C.: Smithsonian Institution P, 1991.
-------. Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes. New York: St. Martins, 1981.
Harris, Marie S and K Kirkschbaum. “Grus canandensis (sandhill crane).” Animal Diversity.         Accessed March 20, 2009 at Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan.         http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Grus__canandensis.html.
Morrison, Jon. “Sandhill Cranes of Bosque del Apache.” Friends of the Bosque del Apache 9.1         (January-February 2002): 1-3.
Rowe, Bruce M. and Diane P. Levine. A Concise Introduction to Linguistics. Boston:
        Pearson/Allyn @ Bacon, 2006.
Winkler, Elizabeth, Grace. Undesrtanding Language. New York: Continuum, 2007.
Yule, George. The Study of Language. 3rd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006.