• Stephen Birchard

One of Nature's Annual Displays: Sandhill Cranes Visit Indiana


Sandhill Crane (© Frank Schulenburg)

When we first arrived, there were no cars in the parking lot. More concerning was that there were no birds in the sky and no rattling bugle call from their throats. This was disappointing since I had spent the entire 2-hour car trip trying to convince my family that they were about to witness one of nature’s beautiful displays. Where were the birds? Had they all decided it was finally time to head to Florida for the winter?


Maybe we got to the wildlife refuge too soon. The sun had not set, it was about 4 pm. The birds usually return here at dusk after feeding all day in adjacent fields and marshes. Maybe they found a perfect field to have dinner and were reluctant to head back to their roosting area. Whatever the reason I yearned for a sighting of them to maintain some semblance of respect from my family who were becoming skeptical of the whole affair.


We decided to take a quick trip into town for something to eat, then return and hopefully see some birds. (Please let us see some birds!)


On the way back to the refuge we spotted a small group of them in the sky. Thank goodness at least some are still here! A handful of cars were now in the lot and a few dedicated bird watchers, dressed in abundant layers of winter clothing, were walking the trail to the observation platform. It was very cold; not perfect bird watching weather. But then we were in northern Indiana in December just a few days before Christmas.


My son Stuart and I on our way to the Observation Tower to see the cranes.

A few more small groups of birds came in from our left, flying low. They were joining their friends in the roosting areas. I focused my binoculars and easily found them flying just above the horizon. Behind them were a few more groups, each one containing more birds. They were silhouetted by the setting sun and yellow-orange sky. Majestic in flight, their long necks were stretched out and 7-foot wingspan propelling them to their destination.


Sandhill Cranes at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Becky Ball.)

Gradually there were more, many more. They came in waves, groups of up to a hundred or more, one after the other. All flying from left to right in front of us, and all beautifully illuminated by the evening sky which was becoming more colorful as the sun dipped below the horizon. A few of them were making the trumpet call, announcing their arrival to all who will listen.


These are the Sandhill Cranes. Named after the sandhills of Nebraska, they are large, impressive birds. They are fun to watch as individuals, even more spectacular when they congregate in masses of 20 to 30 thousand which they do every fall. They stop at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area on their migration south to Florida for the winter. In the Spring they will head back to their summer grounds in the northern US, Canada, and Alaska. (see map below)


Map showing range and migration routes of the Sandhill Cranes.(https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/maps-range)

The cranes are large birds standing 3 to 3.5 feet tall. They have long necks, and an elongated beak that comes to a sharp point. A bright red crown sits above a white face, and bluish-gray and light brown feathers on the body. The tips of the wing feathers are splashed with black.


Sandhill Cranes socializing. (Andrew C, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

They are quite the talkers; the rattling trumpet call can be heard from birds on the ground and in flight. It is a unique sound that makes them easy to distinguish from other birds. I sometimes hear them flying overhead our home in Indianapolis, but their elevation makes them hard to find. Imagine how it sounds when they congregate on the ground in the thousands.


The cranes mate for life, and their monogamous relationship can last for up to 20 years or more. Divorce is uncommon. The females lay only 1-3 eggs per breeding season, and the immature offspring stay under their parent’s supervision for 9-10 months before striking out on their own.


The Sandhill Cranes are an exception to the plight of so many endangered species. Their numbers are stable. But their critical feeding, breeding, and roosting habitats must be preserved to keep them thriving, especially since they lay very few eggs each breeding season. Although the Jasper Pulaski area is preserved and safe, surrounding fields and marshes are privately owned and thus not protected. The birds need these areas; maintaining them in their natural state is critical.


Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” Nature’s pace invokes serenity, a sense of calm, even meditation. Today the Sandhill Cranes arrived on their schedule, not mine. The wait only made the sight of them more captivating. I am grateful for the image of their majestic wings silhouetted by the fiery colors of sunset. A Christmas gift like no other.


Sandhill Cranes at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Becky Ball)

References

1. Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/properties/jasper-pulaski-fwa


2. The Cornell Lab. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/overview

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