Oh, wonderful springtime in the Northland -- long in coming and welcome when it at last arrives.
I so look forward to it, my most favorite time of year. Life reawakens, migrant birds return, the scent of rain and mud fills my nostrils once again, and vernal ephemerals and the greenery of other plant life will soon cloak the landscape.
A few days ago I heard -- then saw -- my first sandhill crane of the year. The bird, calling wildly from 300 feet in the air, circled Assawa Lake while another crane, possibly its mate, vocalized excitedly on the icepack.
Indeed, for all its quintessential wildness and uniqueness, not many sounds in nature can match that of the sandhill crane. The unmistakable rattling cry, “karr-r-r-r-o-o-o, karr-r-r-r-o-o-o, karr-r-r-r-o-o-o,” echoes across Minnesota marshes and fields everywhere now. Sandhill cranes have returned!
Few birds in Minnesota match the sandhill crane’s height and appearance. An adult bird standing fully erect is about 5 feet tall. In flight, they stretch even longer as they fly with their long necks and legs completely extended. Coupled with wingspans that span about 7 feet in width, sandhill cranes are extraordinary looking birds.
Though not especially colorful, the mostly gray-colored birds' only distinctive coloration are their bright red crowns. Accented with yellow eyes and white cheeks that fade into the grays and browns over the rest of their bodies, it is the sandhill cranes' size and prehistoric call -- and not their plumage -- that draws most of our attention.
Still, as with many species of birds, the sandhill crane’s springtime courting ritual is noteworthy. The spectacular dance of the sandhill is held annually across their breeding range where their preferred habitats of tundra, marshes, prairie wetlands and fields exist.
Courting cranes leap into the air, bow their heads and necks, kick their legs up and out, and flap their wings. Paired couples vocalize in loud croaks while circling one another; the male calls and the female answers. They hold their wings outstretched from their sides, they run about, and they toss tufts of grasses and other vegetation into the air as if tokens for matrimony.
Soon after the dancing is over, mating occurs and nest building begins in earnest. Typically built with grasses near water, the nest-mound can be as large as 5 feet across in which only one or two eggs are laid inside. After a 30-day incubation period that both genders share duties in, the precocial chicks join their doting parents to begin lessons of what’s good to eat. Everything from insects to amphibians to seeds and other plant materials are on the menu.
Sandhill cranes stage each spring and fall by the thousands along their migratory routes. One particularly popular staging area is the Platte River in south-central Nebraska where upwards of half a million cranes, which is 90% of the world’s sandhill crane population, congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the river.
Not many places on earth host larger concentrations of animal species at one time. Check out “Crane Cam” at the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Neb. Cranes are still there, but their numbers decrease daily as the birds leave for their breeding and nesting grounds.
Here is a web link to the live video: explore.org/livecams/national-audubon-society/crane-camera.
We’re lucky to have nesting and migrating sandhill cranes here in Minnesota. In recent years more and more people are reporting nesting cranes in areas where they’ve never before been observed.
In most years, here at Assawa Lake near my home, a pair nests and raises chicks. What a joy it is to listen to their primordial calls from the marsh each day.
Harkening to an ancient time of long ago, sandhill crane vocalizations resonate from marshlands and the sky nearly everywhere in Minnesota today. Sure to interest anyone catching sights and sounds of this beautiful species of wild bird, dancing and enchanting sandhill cranes are here once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.