By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern
Birdwatchers often pay close attention to detail. Usually, a keen sense of hearing and a good pair of binoculars are a necessity for spotting birds in the wild. Finding the Sandhill crane, however, is a different story.
Considering its size alone, the Sandhill crane is not subtle. On average, males weigh about ten pounds, with females around eight pounds. Though adult birds are gray overall, their distinguishing features are their red featherless foreheads, white cheeks and long black bills. The birds stand on long, dark legs and are about two to four feet tall. Despite their size, Sandhill cranes are very skilled soaring birds, with a flight style similar to eagles and hawks. Unlike herons, which bend their necks in flight, Sandhill cranes keep their necks straight when flying.
Sandhill cranes are migratory birds, breeding in Canada and areas of the northern United States (Michigan included) in the summer and retreating to Texas, Florida and Mexico for the winter. The birds sometimes travel south in flocks of over 10,000 birds in concentrated areas, creating a spectacular sight for migratory areas in late fall. Most breeding pairs in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula are found in a six county area near Jackson and Ann Arbor, with highest Upper Peninsula concentrations in eastern counties. Some MNA sanctuaries are home Sandhill cranes, as these interesting birds nest at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County and have been spotted at Goose Creek Grasslands in Lenawee County.
Because Sandhill cranes are ground-nesters, building their solitary nests in or near shallow water, they are often found near marshes or bogs. The bird’s eggs are pale brown and relatively large, and its chicks are dark orange and fluffy. Offspring begin breeding when they are 2-7 years old, and sometimes live for roughly 20 years. The cranes can also be found feeding in corn and upland grain fields, as their diet mainly consists of grains and seeds, with a few insects and invertebrates added to the mix.
The call of the Sandhill crane allows birdwatchers to identify the species without even seeing it. Frequently, the bird gives off a loud trumpeting sound, which can be heard from a far distance. The Sandhill crane’s unique sound resembles a French-style “r,” rolled in the animal’s throat. Intensifying the noise, mated pairs often participate in an act known as “unison calling,” where the two stand close together and call in a synchronized manner.
Regarding conservation, the Sandhill crane is not considered threatened as a species and is one of the few crane species that are still common. With a population of over 400,000, the Lesser Sandhill crane is the most plentiful crane alive today. Still, its three southernmost subspecies, the Florida, Mississippi and Cuban Sandhill cranes, are rare and face multiple population threats. Habitat destruction has had an especially negative effect on Florida Sandhill cranes, though it is expected that management strategies will keep the species from becoming critically threatened. In Michigan, Sandhill crane numbers were reduced by shooting and habitat destruction in the late 20th century but have grown in recent decades.
An excellent opportunity to see Sandhill cranes in the wild is MNA’s 2013 Fall Adventure, September 20-22. The weekend of guided tours will explore Michigan’s Irish Hills area, which is home to many of the Lower Peninsula’s Sandhill cranes. For more information on the trip or to reserve your spot, contact Danielle Cooke at (517) 655-5655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.