The Broader Picture: A Company of Cranes

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IN 1925, the Japanese Ministry of Culture raised the crane to the position of a national monument in an attempt to prevent the extinction of one of the country's most sacred birds. By then, what were thought to be the last 12 cranes left in Japan were surviving in the swampy area around Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido, where they had fled to escape being shot and cooked for dinner. (Eating crane was a privilege once reserved for the Emperor on New Year's Day, but gradually it became a widespread delicacy.) Today, some of the descendants of those 12 cranes live on a reservation in the same area, looked after by its director, Ryoji Takahashi, who for the past 37 years has studied their behaviour and mating habits, and in the process has become almost an honorary crane himself.

The reservation was set up in 1956, when Takahashi was 22. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. Observing his rise was Tato, a male crane, now 37 and one of the few remaining original residents. Cranes are said to be intelligent, so Taro is unlikely to have forgotten the young man who held him tightly against his chest for three days in order to keep him warm when he was sick and who fed him pre-chewed food mouth-to-mouth when he couldn't feed himself.

The first birds to live in the sanctuary, like Taro, had been found sick or injured. Once they were healed, they didn't leave. Others, like Jun, Taro's mate, flew over the reservation, spotted desirable partners and stayed. Currently there are 19 cranes in all - six couples and their young - who roam over an area of about two square miles.

The swampy habitat suits them well. Twice a day the director brings them fish and corn. But nothing restricts their movements: Takahashi is very proud that the birds are free to come and go, and he is keen that, where possible, they return to the wild. He purposely maintains a distance from the young birds, so that they will be more likely to leave and set up their own families elsewhere on the island. Some 40 cranes, all born on the Kushiro reservation, have left and never returned.

Watching Takahashi feeding the adult birds, it's clear how close they have become. Bucket in hand, he steps forward, shouts a clear 'Oye] Oye]' and cuts up the fish he has caught in the river 10 minutes earlier. Jun - the female - comes cautiously out of her hiding-place in the bushes, taking two or three delicate, dignified steps. Then she starts trumpeting loudly. It seems that, despite his friendly greeting, she is unhappy. It is already after 9am and breakfast is late.

Takahashi replies with 'Currocu' - the magic word with which he invariably manages to seduce the birds. It was developed by trial and error, testing various combinations of the Japanese syllabic alphabet. The effect of the word on Jun is always the same. She emits two trumpet calls, throwing back her head, her neck stretched upwards towards the blue sky. Even if you don't understand the language, it's easy to see that man and crane have made their peace. Seeing them together, Taro approaches jealously. Cranes play an equal part in bringing up their young, both look after their nests, and when one dies, the other will stay with the body for as long as possible. In Japan, a pair of cranes symbolises marital bliss.

Taro comes closer to Takahashi, who throws a bit of fish at him playfully. The crane stands motionless, looking at him. There is silence. Suddenly, Takahashi claps his hands and starts singing in a deep, powerful voice. The crane seems to make a bow, then lifts his head and rears himself to his full height. He is dancing, and the director follows the movement with his graceful feet. It's an unusual pas de deux, elegant and racy. Then Taro's trumpet call resounds and the dance is over. The director smiles and discreetly withdraws. People here call him 'the man who has become a crane'.-

(Photograph omitted)