It’s time to get out my annual Sandhill Crane article.
The long, cold, winter, (my family’s first in this state), had begun to tell on the nerves of all and sundry. We were tired of the snow, of the bitter winds, and we wanted to enjoy the outdoors again. Then, so gently it was almost imperceptible, there was a change in the atmosphere. The winds began to come from the south, the sun came back from its long sabbatical, and we began to hear the almost forgotten sounds of spring. Among these sounds was one that was unfamiliar to us, yet haunting. It was the sound of the Sandhill cranes going north.
At our first sighting of these near relatives of the great blue heron, we thought they were a large species of geese. It did not take long, however, to look them up on-line and identify their clarion call as the call of the Sandhill crane. We were astonished that they were so unlike their relatives. Their necks were are held straight, and never curve in the familiar “S” of the great blue heron. For all the length of their legs and body, (37 total length, and a wingspan of 80 inches), they are actually fairly small birds, and the males themselves, we found, never exceedetwelve pounds, nine pounds being the average weight of the female. We soon learned to recognize the rust-red skin that crowns the scalp of the cranes ( the colour brightening with fear, and receding with submission), and the grey plumage stained rust, from the iron oxide-soaked mud and vegetation that the cranes preen themselves with. The birds were always too far off for us to get a good look at their long and pointed bills, but at times these were visible in the binoculars. And,always, we could hear them calling out, as if they knew they were driving the winter away. The call, at least, was similar to the heron– what marvelous mechanism of creation had made the spine-tingling clarion call of these waterfowl possible? We found out. The trachea of all other birds is shaped simply in a straight and single line from the lungs to the throat, but not so in the cranes and herons. In the cranes, the trachea becomes literally a trumpet- the trachea is longer, with a loop that rests in the sternum, and in the herons, this loop that rests in the sternum is made double. Thus the sound that thrills our winter-weary souls is amplified.
We were surprised, as well, to find out how common these cranes were, at 650,000 the Sandhills are the most numerous of all cranes. But these numbers were not all our Sandhills, for there are six subspecies: Greater, Lesser, Canadian, Mississippi, Cuban, and Florida, and only the first three are migratory. It is the Lesser Sandhills whose migration route takes them over our Great Lakes Region. It was only in 1997 that scientists realized just how far the cranes migrate, their journey is over 14,000 miles round trip. They come to us from as far south as Mexico, and from us travel as far as north as Siberia for spring nesting, being the first birds to return for the spring.
When the Sandhill cranes come north, they often bring last year’s young with them, but upon arrival they are brutally driven away from the chosen nesting sites of their parents. Cranes are notoriously territorial, and never nest in groups. They do, however, mate for life, and both sexes participate in the incubation of the eggs and the rearing of the young. Only two eggs are laid, one twelve hours before the other. Incubation takes between 28 and 32 days, the egg that was laid first hatching first, the chick that follows is usually attacked and killed by his older sibling. The average time for a chick to reach fledgeling stage is 65 days, the total life-span of a Sandhill Crane is between 20 and 25 years.
The diet of the Sandhill crane is unpredictable, they are omnivores, and though capable of eating fish, they eat just as many small mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and have even been known to dig out clams and shellfish with their pronged beaks. Unfortunately, they often make pests of themselves in a farmer’s crop during migration, they are numerous indeed, and can wreak havoc on more than the leftovers of his corn and wheat. Many good farmers await their arrival with less than enthusiasm.
Whatever else the Sandhill Cranes may be, however, as I sit here writing on a 60 degree day after months of below zero storms, darkened skies, and the misery of biting winds, I hear the call of the Sandhill Cranes, and I see them circling so many miles above me to gain the proper altitude before reformation, and can only think, “Spring”.