Sandhill Cranes

Here in the central mountains of Idaho, Sandhill cranes are a regular feature. In spring and fall large flocks travel through on their migrations, but a few stay for the summer, nesting and raising colts.

Baby Sandhill cranes are called colts. Who knew! Why colts? Because of their long, strong legs.

Sandhill crane and colt
Sandhill crane and colt. Photo: CC 3.0-kyletracysrs.

Sandhill cranes mate for life, pairing after an elaborate mating dance.

Sandhill cranes
Who could resist that move? A pair of Sandhill cranes. Photo: National Park Service – Patrick Mayers.

They can live for twenty years or more if they’re lucky enough to avoid natural predators and the depredation of their environment by man. If one crane loses its mate, it will find another.

My first exposure to the cranes and their distinctive call was after moving to Idaho. Wondering why I wasn’t familiar with them growing up in western WA, I learned they were “extirpated” (removed, destroyed, exterminated; not clear why) from Washington 1941 – 1972. While slowly returning since then, in 2016 only 32 nesting pairs were confirmed. Most of those nest and breed in a wildlife refuge in southern Washington, far from Seattle.

Learning this reminded me how excited I was to see my first bald eagle in western Washington. They, too, had been nearly wiped out by the 1950s, not just from Washington state but from the entire country. For a long time they were falsely blamed for livestock depredations and killed, but it was the introduction of the pesticide DDT that did them in. When DDT was banned in 1972, they started their slow comeback, and by the time I was in college in the 1980s, a few breeding pairs began living in western Washington. It was thrilling to see them. Thankfully today they’re a fairly common sight, including here in Idaho.

Like bald eagles, Sandhill cranes have recovered and are no longer considered endangered (although two subspecies are still listed – the Mississippi and Cuban sandhill cranes). Usually I hear rather than see the Sandhills. They have a distinctive, rattling call that travels across the nearby fields and pastures. When I finally saw two of them standing in a local pasture, my first thought was, prehistoric. Long legs, long sharp beak topped by red eyes, a huge wing span, they look like something out of Jurassic Park.

This year I was lucky enough to see them a bit closer and capture some video.

In May, two appeared in my field, not far from the dog yard fence. I was inside writing, the window above my desk facing that field. Movement caught my eye. I assumed it was some of the deer that regularly pass through, but the size and movement was wrong. The field grass was green and growing but not too tall, and it had been raining quite a bit. Peering closer, I saw a pair of cranes, feeding on worms and bugs, pecking at the ground between their long-legged steps.

A pair of Sandhill cranes feeding in my field, May 27, 2019.

My dogs were curious, but didn’t bark (although Conall the Malamute huffs a few times). If the dogs moved too fast in the yard, though, the cranes would step toward each other in protective mode, eying us warily before continuing their hunt for food.

A few days ago, walking along a nearby country lane where the dogs enjoy pouncing on voles (score so far is something like Dogs – 1; Voles – 342), I heard the distinctive Sandhill crane call. Four were in a pasture they share with cattle. I often hear them among the trees growing along the irrigation streams here but rarely see them. This time they took off in unison, large wings spacing them apart in loose formation as they circled a neighboring group of trees before landing there and disappearing among the leaves.

Four Sandhill cranes fly across a pasture before landing in trees alongside an irrigation stream. (Hard to see; best viewed on a large screen.)

Some Sandhill crane facts:

  • The sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is a species of large crane of North America and extreme northeastern Siberia. The common name comes from habitat it enjoys at the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills on the American Plains.
  • Average height: 2 feet 7 inches to 4 feet 6 inches.
  • Wingspan: 5 feet 5 inches to 7 feet 7 inches. Skilled soaring birds, they ride thermals for lift, staying aloft for hours while migrating.
  • Form life-long breeding pairs between ages two to seven. Both parents help incubate eggs.
  • When nesting and raising young, they stay in pairs or small family groups; when wintering, they flock in large groups, up to 10,000 birds.
  • Old: earliest confirmed fossil is at least 2.5 millions years old.
map Sandhill crane range
Sandhill crane range. Key: orange = breeding; yellow = migration; purple = year-round; blue = nonbreeding. Map CC 4.0, Birdlife International 2016.

Given their size and vocalizations, and because they spend most of their time on the ground, Sandhill cranes have plenty of predators to watch out for: mammals such as foxes, raccoons, coyotes, cougars, wolves, bobcats and lynx; birds such as ravens and crows, gulls, and hawks feed on their eggs and colts, and eagles and great horned owls sometimes prey on adults.

So how do the adults defend their nests, colts and themselves from attack? With mad kickboxing skills, followed by a vicious stab with their bills if necessary. When approached by a land predator, the cranes hiss, spread their wings and poke the air menacingly with their bills. If the predator’s not scared off by those tactics and comes too close, the cranes will stab – their bills can pierce the skull of a small carnivore – and kick. With airborne predators, jumping and kicking are their go-to defenses. When wintering – not protecting a nest or young – they’re more likely to run or fly away from predators.

Lessons: don’t engage with an angry Sandhill crane, but do enjoy listening to their calls and watching them fly overhead on migration, necks stretched straight ahead and feet trailing straight behind like an arrow with a plump middle, little changed over the millennia because why mess with perfection?

Featured photo: Sandhill cranes in flight; National Park Service (Tim Rains).

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