Blue Water Healthy Living
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The Beautiful Sandhill Crane

Photo Courtesy of Jacie Rose Sanders

Sandhill Crane, Antigone canadensis 

By Tom Dennis

Sandhill Cranes have recently been plying the local skies as they migrate to their breeding grounds and they have also been in the news the last couple of years with some of our Michigan State Senators pushing for legalized hunting of these birds. I believe that the scientific, economic, agricultural, and ecological facts haven’t come to the forefront of appeals in support of this bill.  Let’s take a look at these stately birds, with my admittedly biased, balanced view (is that possible?), and then we can better decide their future.

The Sandhill Crane is indeed stately.  It stands tallest amongst all of our local bird species, often as tall as six feet. It weighs in at ten pounds, and has a 6.5 foot wingspan.  The plumage is gray overall with the exception of the head, with the crown being gray in the back and sporting a bright red cap that extends forward to the black, dagger-like bill.  The throat and cheeks are white.  The legs are black and the wing tips (primaries) are dark-gray.  The short tail is covered by drooping feathers that form a bustle.  In flight the long neck is fully extended as are the long legs, both at a slight downward angle, a feature that distinguishes them from other large flock migrators such as swans, herons, and egrets.  As large as these birds are, they are often heard before they are seen.  They make a loud bugling call reminiscent of swans but the similarity is lost completely on the accompanying rattle-like “kar –r-r-o-o-o” call.  I’m reminded of a trip to North-western Indiana where Laurie and I visited a well-known bird sanctuary that is a wintering ground for cranes.  The visitor center volunteer’s to see the cranes was simply “follow the sounds”. The thousands of cranes were easily heard from a distance of over two miles! 

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These social birds live in pairs or family groups throughout the year but during migration and winter, unrelated individuals come together to form “survival groups” that feed and roost together.  These group sites are well-known in Florida, Eastern Tennessee, and as mentioned above for the Indiana gathering.  The groups at times have congregants numbering in the tens of thousands.  The Sandhill Cranes we see in Michigan are a unique population that breeds in every state and province that surrounds the Great Lakes and also extends into Quebec.  Preferred nesting sites are usually marshes and other open wetlands though occasionally dry land such as pastures is chosen. These individuals migrate through, and winter in, a very narrow band of states that is exclusive Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida (a relatively narrow flyway).  Cranes readily eat cultivated foods including corn, wheat, cottonseed and sorghum but their diet varies greatly with breeding adults and young feeding on berries, small mammals, snails, reptiles, insects, and amphibians.

Like many large birds, Cranes are fairly long-lived.  However, they take four to five years to mature into breeding adults.  The pairs typically raise one chick per year but like most birds in the wild, survival rates are poor.  The latest survivability records for the Wisconsin breeding population records a drop in survival from 0.7 chicks per pair in 1992 to 0.4 chicks per pair in 2006.  This is a dangerous trend for a bird that was on the endangered species list less than one hundred years ago!  Sixteen American states allow hunting of this migratory bird that had the unfortunate fate of being classified as a game species.  

I understand the concern of crop loss from pests, both sets of my grandparents were farmers.  Michigan farmers are allowed to apply for a permit that allows them to remove pest birds.  There are however alternatives; a seed coating is now available and it renders corn inedible to Sandhill Cranes while keeping it safe for human consumption.  Farmers actually benefit when they use this product as the birds remain in the fields consuming large quantities of mice, insects and insect larvae that are otherwise costly and environmentally dangerous to control.  Hunters undoubtedly support conservation through license fees as do conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, who I proudly support but, wildlife watchers are now a larger and growing, wildlife support group.  Nebraska refrains from appeals to open a Sandhill Crane season and they now benefit from ecotourism groups that come specifically to watch the western migration.  These tourists spent $14.3 million in 2017 specifically to see these magnificent birds.  As of 2016 wildlife watchers in the United States outnumbered hunters 7:1 and outspent them 3:1.  

I close with this mention of the genus of this bird, Antigone.  A name you may recall from the famous Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in 441 BC.  The central theme of Antigone is the tension between individual action and fate. Many animals have been adversely affected by human harvesting without thought or care in the process.  Remember the Dodo, many whales, and even recently the Orange Roughy, a long-lived large fish that may never recover from overharvesting.  We were given the creation for our use with good stewardship in mind.

If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to visit the local Audubon Facebook page at “Blue Water Audubon Society”.  Please be sure to friend us.  A site search under Sandhill Crane will lead you to the Society’s position.


Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.

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