Thousands of wading birds beneath a lightning-fractured sky greet visitors to National Geographic: 50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs, an exhibition on view in the museum’s R.P. Simmons Family Gallery until May 25. The image, a featured work enlarged to wall mural size, documents a 2016 visit by National Geographic photographer Randy Olson to observe migrating sandhill cranes along Nebraska’s Platte River.
The great annual gatherings of sandhill cranes along the Platte demand artistic documentation, so too the routine behaviors of the majestic birds at far smaller concentrations in other seasons, locations, and times.
All 15 of the world’s crane species dance. Performances by the long-legged and long-necked birds involve repeated leaps, wingbeats, pirouettes, and bows. Dancing is a vital part of crane courtship behavior, but because dance movements are frequently performed outside of pair bonding situations, the displays seem to have broader social functions.
Crane dancing has long captivated human observers. Across the five continents where crane species occur, the long legacy of human fascination includes sculptures, folktales, poems, and, of course, dances.
In eastern North America, long before the Ohio River became a highway for American settlers heading west, an unknown artist carved an image of dancing sandhill cranes into an expanse of river-edge sandstone near what is now Weirton, West Virginia. The rock unit and its art work were lost in the early decades of the 20th Century when the adjacent river channel was deepened for navigation.
Today we’re able to admire some intrinsic aspects of this Ohio River dance because of the careful work of Harold B. Barth, a farsighted amateur archaeologist from East Liverpool, Ohio. During 1908 and 1909, Barth took measurements, photographs, and imprints of the crane images and other associated rock carvings. In 1974, when Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator James L. Swauger published a comprehensive, 15-year study of regional carvings titled, Rock Art of the Upper Ohio Valley, the vanished, but well documented crane pair merited a full-page plate.
In speculation about carving dates for rock art he studied at several dozen sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, Swauger provides himself with centuries of wiggle room by siting the “five hundred and fifty years from A.D. 1200 to about 1750.” In assigning meaning to the cranes and hundreds of other rock renderings, the late scientist is refreshingly honest, professing to be “… as ignorant concerning interpretation of designs now as I was when I started the study.”
For additional information about crane species, please visit the International Crane Foundation.
National Geographic: 50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs is developed and traveled by the National Geographic Society.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.