If you’ve never experienced seeing (and hearing) sandhill cranes, I’d highly recommend seeking opportunities to do so. They’re truly amazing birds. Standing 3 feet tall with a wing span of 6 feet, I guarantee they’re something you will not easily forget.
They have long bills, necks and legs, and have gray bodies, red on the head area above the eye and white cheeks. They weigh somewhere between 7 to 11 pounds. There are only two species of cranes in North America, sandhills and whooping cranes (which are even larger).
This October, I drove up to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana to see sandhill cranes that were beginning to migrate through the area. Their flight takes them from some eastern areas in Canada and funnels them through this wildlife area. And with good reason. Sandhill cranes seek flat, wet, marshy land that provides good overall vision of the area. And add the appeal of recently combined agricultural fields and you have a good source of grain foraging which helps feed them on their routes south.
Not all sandhill cranes migrate through this area. The majority of sandhills migrate through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska. Hence the source of the “sandhill” name.
Sandhill cranes migrating through Indiana do so from about mid-October through early to mid-December. When migrating, they can average 150 to 400 miles per day and fly predominantly during the daytime. When they fly, their necks are outstretched with legs extended straight behind them. It’s a graceful and striking pose.
If you want to see Sandhills in flight, plan to arrive in the early morning after sunrise or in the evening before sunset, as this is the time they’re on the move. During the day you will usually find them foraging in fields.
Sandhill cranes can live 20 years or more and they mate for life. The females will lay one to three eggs (usually 2 eggs), with often only one surviving to adulthood. Young cranes will stay with their parents for about 10 months until the adult pair begin nesting again. Sandhill cranes begin breeding between two and seven years of age.
Selection of a mate is based upon dancing. Yes, dancing, which includes bowing, jumping and something I’ve heard called a “vertical toss.” That is when the male grabs a clump of grass or dirt and tosses it in the air with an accompanied dance or hop. Here are some photos of the action.
Look closely at the photo above and you can still see the clod of dirt he flung in the air before his acrobatics.
Although dancing is predominantly a sign of courtship, I have read it can also occur at other times as well. Some believe it’s part of their development process.
From what I could find online, the eastern sandhill cranes (which migrate through Indiana) are not hunted in that state. Habitat availability seems to be the most important aspect of sandhill crane populations. But don’t quote me on this one. There are quite a few varying points of view on the subject.
For myself, I hope this beautiful creature continues to maintain populations and inspire us with their unique dance. I hope this blog inspires you to seek an opportunity to see this mesmerizing migration display. It’s something you won’t forget.
Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.