Birds Out of Time

The trouble with cranes is that they are birds out of time, and rapidly running out of space. The family of cranes first evolved over 50 million years ago and ever since their majestic forms have stalked the vast grassy wetlands that have been so central to the continuance of life on earth. These productive regions have waxed and waned as the globe’s climate has cooled and warmed, but there has always been sufficient for the cranes’ survival—until now.

In our increasingly densely populated and polluted planet most of the fifteen crane species cling to an ever more precarious existence; indeed the extinction of several species seems inevitable. Yet anyone reading Peter Matthiessen’s latest book, The Birds of Heaven, will know that this cannot be allowed to occur, for cranes, the book makes clear, are among humanity’s best hopes for our own survival. This is not only because conserving them entails the preservation of vital ecosystem functions, but because the cause of preserving them brings together people from vastly different cultures. The special ability of cranes to do this derives from the high esteem in which they are held in many societies. It is almost as if a love of cranes is a basic human instinct that, for once, drives us to do good for our world.

A wild river called the Amur on the Chinese–Russian border is global headquarters to the family Gruidae—the cranes. Nearly half of the fifteen species can be seen along the Amur, including the red-crowned crane, which at thirty-three pounds in weight and five feet in height is the largest flying bird on earth. Since the Amur flows through the heart of Asia and divides the vastness of Russia from the sea of humanity that is China, the region’s status as a borderland has until now protected it and its cranes from overexploitation. This has been vital to the survival of the great birds, for the red-crowned crane and several other endangered species use it as a breeding ground. But the closing decades of the twentieth century have brought such a rush toward economic development that the region is besieged with plans for dams and industrial development, threatening an environmental disaster. Cranes invented globalization long before people did, for, with the exception of South America, they have colonized every habitable continent, and their migrations can carry them over almost half the globe. So it is ironic that our own species’s economic globalization is such a threat to them.

It was this threat to the Amur’s cranes that brought Peter Matthiessen to the river in the summer of 1992. He participated in a shipboard conference whose aim was to create a huge international crane reserve that would take in the borderlands of Russia, China, and Inner and Outer Mongolia. One might imagine that a project of such significance would have been organized by the United Nations or some equally eminent body, but this was not the case. Instead the conference was the brainchild of an…

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