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Blane Klemek: The wonders of the sandhill crane

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The sandhill crane. Indeed, one of Minnesota’s most interesting birds happens to possess one of the most amazing voices of any species of bird I know of. On my commutes home this springtime driving across a landscape yet replete with snow and cold, catching a glimpse of my unique avian friends during this month of April has been fleeting, if not almost non-existent.

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I was, however, pleased with the sight of a crane duo just a few days ago — likely a mated pair — walking on a rare patch of bare earth on a crop-field adjacent to the back-slope of a roadside ditch, and probing the semi-frozen sod with their beaks in search of something —anything — worthy to eat. The pair seemed unaware or unconcerned as I “craned” my neck to observe them while speeding by.

Sandhill cranes belong to the avian order Gruiformes, the same order that rails and coots belong to. And of cranes, no other crane is as abundant worldwide as the sandhill crane is. Their population is estimated at over 500,000. To compare, the entire wild and captive population of the larger and related whooping crane of North America is probably less than 700 individual birds.  Furthermore, there are six recognized sub-species of sandhill crane. Here in Minnesota we enjoy the company of Greater sandhill cranes. Others subspecies are the Lesser, Canadian, Florida, Mississippi, and Cuban sandhill cranes.

I’ll never forget the first time I observed this prehistoric looking bird. Several of the birds were gathered on a field near our dairy farm in Ottertail County. From the distance I couldn’t believe I was looking at birds. They seemed much too large. For sure, many people frequently mistake sandhill cranes for animals such as deer.

Perhaps this is because some people do not associate birds in Minnesota to be the height of deer. Or, maybe it’s the gray color of their plumage, or both. But whatever the similarities to other creatures may be, their voice, their unique body design, and their behavior puts sandhill cranes into a league of their own.

Primarily a bird of freshwater wetlands and marshes, large flocks of sandhill cranes are also frequently seen feeding on agricultural fields, particularly during the fall migration. It is not uncommon to see grain stubble fields in the northern Red River Valley dotted everywhere with sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes are large birds. With a wingspan of over six feet and a body length exceeding 45 inches, it’s no wonder people mistake these birds for something else. When standing erect, sandhill cranes can be as tall as four feet from head to toe. Their long legs and long necks give them an almost dinosaurian appearance. They can reach weights of over ten pounds.

Both genders have a red crown, but first-year juveniles lack this trait. When they prepare to fly, sandhill cranes will generally run into the wind several steps before becoming airborne. Once in the air, cranes often fly in goose-like formations (in a “V”), with their long legs held rigidly behind their bodies and calling as they fly.

Like so many creatures that perform elaborate courtship displays during the mating season, sandhill cranes add yet another courtship oddity to the incredible variation of rituals that exists in the world of birds. A pair of sandhill cranes performs graceful motions that can, without much imagination, be likened to a dance.

The dances are performed most notably during the spring breeding season and are therefore believed to assist in establishing pair bonds. Pairs of cranes jump up and down facing each other, with wings extended, over and over again. The male will often grasp and toss into the air vegetation like grasses or stems while leaping upwards.

The voice of the sandhill crane has been variously described. Aldo Leopold, from “A Sand County Almanac, 1949,” wrote in part, of “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.” In Leopold’s usual noteworthy and eloquent way, he accurately expressed the calls of cranes.

Field guidebooks often explain crane-calls in less colorful ways, but often makes reference to the “rattling” nature and rolling “bugle-like” qualities of the calls and, often, qualifying the descriptions with much “variability” or “variation.” However the voice is portrayed, it is on par with the howls of wolves, the cacophony of Canada geese, and the wails of loons as quintessential wildness.

In a Cree Indian creation story of how cranes acquired their red crowns and long legs, a rabbit wished to go to the moon and asked many birds to help him get there, but no bird could help out. Crane eventually offered to take Rabbit to the moon, so Rabbit grasped Crane’s legs and up they went.

Once the pair arrived at the moon, Rabbit wanted to give a gift of thanks to Crane, so he touched Crane’s head, causing it to become red. And because of Rabbit’s weight, the legs of Crane became stretched. And to this day, all cranes heads are red and their legs are long.

Species of cranes the world over have inspired legend, art, and adoration amongst human observers. Soon the spring migration and courtship dances of sandhill cranes will be all about us in northwestern Minnesota. Lucky we are that these magnificent birds are here to see as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

— Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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