Exploring the Land of C’idawai


Briony Penn
Salt Spring Island, BC
May 2006

In 1916, populations of sandhill crane were pushed to the verge of extinction from overhunting in the United States prompting the introduction of the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In Heiltsuk memory, these cranes, called c’idawai, that typically arrived in mid-April from their southern wintering grounds in the lower Columbia River and featured in Heiltsuk traditions had virtually disappeared.

Twelve years later, Ian McTaggart-Cowan 1, young BC biologist, accompanied naturalist/collector Tom (TT) McCabe to document and obtain specimens of the fauna of the central coast of British Columbia for the University of California Berkeley. Almost 80 years later, Dr. McTaggart-Cowan recalls seeing sandhill cranes on the offshore islands during that collecting trip. He also noted them exhibiting significantly different behaviour than that of the populations in the interior. “I remember they crouched and ran like rabbits through the forest and nested up in the boggy areas. They looked and behaved differently than what I had observed in other sandhill crane populations. I believed at that time that they might be different from the interior populations.”

Since then, there has been no scientific research in British Columbia on this unique population of sandhill cranes (called the Canadian sandhill cranes or Grus canadensis rowani), their recovery, or their use of the coast habitats for breeding. Recent definitive volumes of Birds of BC, co-edited by Dr. McTaggart Cowan, state that virtually nothing is known of this coastal subspecies population. Researcher Tom Hoffman of the West Coast Crane Working Group (WCCWG) in Washington, inspired by Ian McAllister’s presentation in Seattle, encouraged and supported Raincoast to initiate a two week pilot study in May to determine the scope and potential for a larger comprehensive study that would fill in some of the gaps in the scientific community’s knowledge of this magnificent bird.

With financial assistance from the WCCWG and Robert Bateman (renowned craniac and artist), helicopter time donated by volunteer Raincoaster Don Arney, and guidance from Dr. McTaggart-Cowan and Dr. Paul Paquet, we began our pilot study. Not only did we observe some breeding and nesting behaviours never before documented, but we got an insight into the critical role of the unlogged islands of the Great Bear Rainforest for one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful birds—what other cultures have named the Birds of Heaven.

For two weeks, I worked with Jessie Houstie, Larry Jorgenson and Doug Brown of Bella Bella. Along with other volunteers, we followed up leads from local knowledge about where the birds are observed, and we went to these areas by boat, kayak, foot and helicopter. At all hours and through all weather we attempted what Dr. Paquet described as “introducing yourself to the cranes”. Introducing oneself to a large but perfectly camouflaged bird with an uncanny ability to detect strangers in their territory is no easy task.

Through our attempts to secretly observe these birds through an assortment of hides, we built a good body of data on what not to do. However, we did introduce ourselves—albeit loudly—and filmed/observed over 50 birds in a variety of habitats and social groupings. We observed what we called ‘adolescent hangouts’ as well as breeding territories for pairs (and pairs with their adolescent hangers-on) in the first stages of nesting. We identified 15, possibly 18, probable nesting sites for further study in an area stretching from Spider Island in the south to Dowager Island in the north. Even more significantly, we identified important questions about population distribution, habitat preferences, and the role of the complex and unique mosaic of estuaries, forests and bog habitats for providing the essential requirements for nest sites.

We discovered that cranes do indeed run and crouch, and they run through well-defined forest trails between their foraging areas on the shoreline and their nesting areas in the bogs. We observed distraction behaviours ranging from plaintiff bugling and limping to what we called ‘spyhopping’ and circling around the trail head or bog nesting sites. We observed them feeding in a range of different habitats and collected scat to determine feeding preferences. We discovered that Denny Island, where Raincoast’s office is located, is possibly the epicenter of cranes on the coast with some of the finest habitat anywhere. Mostly, we fell in love with these wonderful birds who deserve every effort to protect them after their long climb back from extinction a century ago. Stay tuned for plans about where Raincoasters and the Heiltsuk Nation might take this exciting pilot project.

  1. Broken link: http://www.protocol.gov.bc.ca/protocol/prgs/obc/1991/1991_IMactaggartCowan.htm. Ian McTaggart-Cowan’s field journals can be found in University of Victoria’s digital archives.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.