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Sandhill cranes are magnificent

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On a recent drive through the countryside of western Clearwater County, I caught sight of one of Minnesota's largest birds -- certainly the tallest. A pair of sandhill cranes was walking side by side in a freshly mowed hayfield. I had thought I saw a chick with the adult birds, so I stopped to observe them. It turned out there was no chick, but I was nevertheless delighted.

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One of the birds, probably the male, picked up with its beak small bits of vegetation and then tossed the mouthfuls of grass into the air. The bird performed the interesting display numerous times while I watched. Seeing the birds reminded me of the first time I had ever observed the species.

At that time, many years ago, several of the birds were gathered on a field near the Otter Tail County dairy farm I grew up on. From the distance I couldn't believe I was looking at birds. They seemed much too large. Indeed, many people frequently mistake sandhill cranes for animals such as deer. Whatever the similarities to other creatures might be, their primordial voice puts the sandhill crane into a league of their own.

Sandhill cranes belong to the avian order Gruiformes, the same order that rails and coots belong to. And no other crane is as abundant worldwide as the sandhill crane is; their population is estimated at more than 500,000. To compare, the entire wild population of the larger, rare, and related whooping crane of North America is just 389 individual birds (operationmigration.org/Whooping_Crane_Count.html).

Furthermore, there are six recognized sub-species of sandhill crane. Here in Minnesota there are two distinct regional populations of the Greater Sandhill Crane. Other subspecies are the Lesser, Canadian, Florida, Mississippi, and Cuban Sandhill Cranes.

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.

As already mentioned, sandhill cranes are big birds. With a wingspan of six to seven feet and a body length of about four feet, it's no wonder people mistake these birds for something else. When standing erect, sandhill cranes can be as tall as five feet from head to toe. Their long legs and long necks give them an almost dinosaurian appearance. They can reach weights of more than 10 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 "V" formations with their lengthy legs held rigidly behind their bodies and their outstretched necks leading the way, 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 compared to a dance.

The dances are performed most notably during the spring breeding season and are therefore believed to assist in establishing pair bonds. The two birds jump up and down facing each other, with wings extended, over and over again. The male will frequently grasp and toss vegetation into the air 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 his eloquent way, Mr. Leopold accurately expressed the calls of cranes.

Field guides explain crane vocalizations in a less colorful way, but often make reference to the rattling nature and rolling bugle-like quality of the call, often qualifying the descriptions with much "variability" or "variation." However the voice is portrayed, it is on par with that of wolf howls, the cacophony of goose talk, 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. No bird could help out. So, Crane offered to take Rabbit to the moon.

Rabbit grasped Crane's legs and up they went. Once 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 stretched. To this day, all cranes heads are red and their legs are long.

Species of cranes the world over has inspired legend, art and adoration among human observers, and soon the autumn migration of sandhill cranes will begin here in the Northland. The unique rattling "karr-r-r-r-o-o-o, karr-r-r-r-o-o-o, karr-r-r-r-o-o-o" echoing across marshes and fields is as much prehistoric in quality as it is impossible sounding. Lucky we are that these magnificent birds are here to see as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

--

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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