You’re out in the yard enjoying the garden, or lying in bed in the stillness of the night, when you hear them. It’s a unique sound, a resonant, nasal honking, sounding much like a high flying traffic jam. I may be challenged when it comes to distinguishing warblers or sparrows by their calls, but Sandhill Cranes are so distinctive, even I recognize them as they fly by. Summer is over, and the cranes are heading south. Since I’m in Colorado, their destination is likely Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, in central New Mexico, although they range as far south as Mexico and Cuba, and as far west as Siberia.
I’ve been to see the cranes who spend the cold months at Bosque. It’s an incredible show. In the predawn darkness, you can just make out the approximately 15,000 birds huddled together in the shallow water. At the first light of daylight they begin to stir, stretching necks and wings, softly calling to one another. Then suddenly, just as the sun crests the nearby hills, the entire flock takes to the air in one giant lift-off, huge wings beating, legs dangling. Finally airborne, they head out to the nearby fields for a day of grazing on corn grown especially for the hungry cranes. Meanwhile, we birders turn our attention to the other birds in residence—or maybe a hot breakfast.
The cranes also overwinter in Florida, Texas, Utah, and California. And while the 15,000 cranes at Bosque adds up to a lot of birds, that’s a mere sideshow compared to the 650,000 cranes that amass on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska every spring, as they start their journey north. That is 75% of all the Sandhill Cranes there are, all in one place at one time. Audubon Nebraska holds a crane festival for the occasion, and yes, I definitely want to go!
Seeing the cranes flying overhead reminds me that they have another home in the north, where they nest. Sandhill Cranes breed across the northern U.S. (including Alaska), in Canada and even cross the Bering Strait to Siberia. Surprisingly, the birds living in the southeast—from Mississippi to Florida and Cuba—don’t migrate at all. They nest right there, where they live year round.
Because I’ve mostly seen cranes during the winter months, I have yet to witness their mating dances. (I hope to rectify that soon!) The cranes mate for life—although genetic studies have demonstrated that a bit of hanky-panky goes on in the bushes. As the weather warms, the birds renew their bond by bowing and leaping, jumping and flapping in an incredible display. The more athletic the dance, the more desirable the mate, so the birds do their utmost to impress.
Once the pair has arrived on their nesting grounds, they both contribute to nest building—an impressive mound of cattails, sedges, and other handy vegetation piled on the marshy ground. A clutch is typically two eggs, but only one chick is likely to survive to fledge.
The offspring are precocious, mobile within hours of hatching, but stay with their parents throughout the winter, enjoying the protection of the experienced adults. They finally strike off on their own come spring, leaving mom and dad free to start a new family. While the young may breed the following year—at the early age of two—others wait up to seven years to find a mate and get down to business. As lives pans can last twenty years or more, choosing a mate is a serious business.
And what about those distinctly crane-y calls? The Cornell Lab describes them as “loud, rattling bugle calls,” and “moans, hisses, gooselike honks, and snoring sounds” and they’re so loud they can be heard several miles away! I learned that a crane’s windpipe extends down their long neck and under the sternum, where it ends in a sort of echo-chamber. That allows an impressive bird make an equally impressive sound. How appropriate!