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Sandhillls Anyone?

Sandhillls Anyone?

Sure, You Can Shoot Them, But Then What?

Several years ago, when sandhill cranes became legal game in Saskatchewan, one of my long-time hunting partners--a former major and helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps and later a game warden--for whatever perverse reasons that govern his actions, shot one. He later contended that he had been ordered to do so by the officer-in-charge-of-the-hunt, a charge strongly denied by the OIC.

Sent first for the speck, Duke returned with his head, up tail wagging and an aren't-l-a clever-dog look. When next sent for the dead crane, he chose an entirely different tack.

A far more likely explanation is that after about a quarter of a million sandhill cranes had passed overhead that morning squawking at The Major, one flew over about 30 yards up and taunted him. It is never wise to taunt a Marine holding a loaded weapon. Thus began a long string of bad experiences with cranes both for the dogs expected to retrieve these avian aberrations and the people expected to eat them.

On this occasion, when The Major sent his dog, Code, to retrieve the dead crane, about 10 yards away from the bird it dawned on Code that this was not your regulation duck or goose. He skidded to a halt like a quarter horse on a slide stop and proceeded to circle the bird, all the while barking at it. When The Major shouted, "Fetch!" at Code, the dog viewed it as an unlawful order that carried the threat of court martial if he obeyed, since picking up the crane clearly constituted a criminal act, at least in his mind.

Finally, after several minutes of orders and threats bellowed at volumes usually reserved for the slowest recruits, The Major convinced Code that failure to pick up the bird constituted an act of mutiny. The dog very gingerly grabbed the bird's neck and towed the crane through the mud back to his commanding officer. To say that he presented it with disdain would be a vast understatement.

When he reached the edge of the mud but well before he completely exited it or brought the crane to hand, he dropped the neck, walked off the mud flat on to the stubble field, turned his back to The Major and sat down. All in all, it was the most graphic expression of disgust I'd ever seen by a dog...that is, until a few years later when one of my own dogs topped it.

It should be noted that only on extremely rare occasions will I shoot a crane, despite pleas from our farmer hosts in Saskatchewan (who view the birds as something akin to a swarm of locusts) to kill our limit each and every day we hunt. When I do shoot one, it is usually by accident.

On this occasion, the fates chose to align a specklebelly (white-fronted) goose and a sandhill perfectly so that the shot that dropped the speck also killed the crane. I sent Duke to pick up the goose which he retrieved with head up, tail wagging and an aren't-I-a-clever-dog look on his face.

Then I sent him for the crane although, in truth, it looked perfectly fine to me where it was--a grey lump on the opposite shore of the sheet of water that occupied a low spot in a wheat stubble field. I mean, it hadn't been as though I'd actually been trying to kill a crane. It had merely blundered into the pattern. Nevertheless, the rules of the hunt--to say nothing of the provincial game laws--required that all efforts be made to retrieve downed game. So, at my muttered "Duke," he ran through the water and arrived at the crane.

First he danced around it for several minutes, poking it with his nose, audibly snorting and sneezing with each poke. Finally he stopped and looked back for instructions on what to do with this strange-feathered blob. When I spoke the magic words "Fetch it up," he gave me a very strange look. Then this thoroughly force-broken dog, who also possesses a string of field titles long enough to impress just about anyone, shook himself (either saying "no" or trying to rid himself of any traces of scent from the bird), walked over to the bird and lifted his leg on it.

One of these two cranes gave Cal the fright of her young life.

In a single gesture he managed to communicate his contempt for the game he was asked to retrieve as well as clearly state, "You want it? You pick it up!"

A couple of years ago, my brother's dog Cal received the fright of her young life. One of my hunting partners--not The Major this time although in attitude they could be brothers, if not clones--was determined to shoot a crane or two. He never did supply a satisfactory explanation as to why he harbored crane-shooting aspirations, but in the end we decided to humor him.

As luck would have it, a flock of cranes came motoring over the decoys and Denny couldn't resist. He picked one out and fired once. Two cranes hit the ground. As my dog and I were about a half-mile away trying to chase down a fugitive goose, my brother sent his young dog to make the retrieve.

Cal had only retrieved one or two geese in her brief career as a waterfowl dog and had certainly never seen anything like a crane. But she was game. Unfortunately, just as she got within snatching range of the two cranes, the one that had only been winged stood up, lowered its head and hissed at her. "Aiiiiiiee, corumba!"

Not old enough or experienced enough to be brave in the face of a threatened attack by something as big, ugly and formidable-looking as a crane, Cal halted her charge in mid-air and in total defiance of the laws of gravity, leaped straight backward a good six feet. She had seen enough. There was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that this apparition ate dogs for breakfast. She returned to my brother's side and made it absolutely clear she was having none of this strange-looking and obviously vicious adversary.

Getting the dogs to retrieve is only part of the problem when you have a dead crane. After you have it in hand, you have to do something with the bird and this means trying to figure out a way to make it edible. Yes, I know they meet the barest definition of edible--if you eat one, you won't fall facedown into your plate. Still, it doesn't mean that you'd want to eat one unless you were on the brink of starvation and your survival was at stake.

The one time we attempted to eat sandhill crane, the one shot by The Major, it was obvious from the beginning that this fowl was going to need more than the ordinary throw-it-in-a-pan-with-some-butter-and-garlic treatment. Half the breast was sautéed in butter with Vidalia onions and fresh mushroo

ms and served with a sour mash bourbon sauce.

The other half, also sautéed in butter, was served with a garlic/plum wine/Dijon mustard/wild blueberry compote sauce. The sauces were nothing short of sensational. A gourmet chef I know said that, prepared like this, he could eat his sneakers. One thing is for certain. We'd have been better off trying to eat his sneakers than trying to eat the crane.

Bobby doesn't "do" cranes. In fact, he won't even look at them.

How to describe that first bite? It's a bit like trying to describe passing a kidney stone to someone who has never had the experience. To put things in the proper perspective, when I was in college I worked for a man who had received a contract from the U.S. military to reformulate field rations. He used his staff as guinea pigs for this project on the assumption that college students will eat damned near anything as long as it is free. Those field rations were five-star fare compared to the crane.

Tough? Shoe-leather by comparison is fork-tender. Stringy? I once had the "honor" of being served monkey meat and there was no way to gracefully decline. It was the smoothest, finest filet mignon compared to crane. Offered leftovers--and there were plenty--the dogs, who have been known to relish road kill that has been basting for three days in a July sun, turned up their noses.

The next morning, a member of the hunting party contended that he had been awakened during the night by loud, strangling noises outside his window. When he looked for the source of the racket, he said he saw a coyote retching and gagging a few feet away from the crane leftovers. While that may have been an exaggeration, his tale did not garner any of the usual hoots of disbelief and derision that usually accompany such stories.

Denny eventually did devise a means by which his crane could be eaten but only by unsuspecting victims. It should also be noted that he selected the smaller of the two, which happened to be from that year's hatch, and rumor has it that the young of the year are considerably better eating than the mature birds. However, Denny's method involved grinding the marinated cooked crane into a pâté so loaded with onions, pickles, garlic, mayonaise and who knows what else that the crane was overpowered by and indistinguishable from the rest of the ingredients.

This year, the farmer who loans us his farmhouse during hunting season requested that we shoot a crane. He said he liked crane. So on the first morning of the hunt when the first flock of cranes came in range, we complied with our host's request. Then we watched Bobby, the fifth generation of my line of thoroughly force-broken, field titled dogs, trot over to the bird, sniff at it and return in a huff, outraged at what he'd been sent to do.

The end of this most recent crane-shooting episode provides a perfect commentary on why you should do yourself a favor and resist shooting cranes, no matter how tempting it may be when they fly over 20 yards up and taunt you.

After removing the breast meat for the farmer, we left the remainder of the crane in his machine shed for the lean, hungry-looking cat that lived there. A week later, the crane remained as we had left it--untouched. Even a half-starved cat was unwilling to chance dining on crane.

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