Submitted by: Steve Sass Feature photo by: Mark Blassage
November is the month that officially kicks off the holiday season, and if you’re anything like me, your goal is to make it to January with the least amount of emotional and financial distress possible. November is also the month that is the most associated with certain large birds, but this month’s Bird of the Month isn’t about the one that goes “gobble-gobble.”
As we socialize around the Thanksgiving holiday, another type of famous socializing is occurring right within our region that sadly goes unnoticed by many. Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are congregating in massive numbers this month just north of Medaryville, IN at the Jasper/Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA). When I say “massive numbers,” to put things into perspective, according to the 2010 census, the entire population of Medaryville was 614 people whereas, a count by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources on October 25, 2017 listed 5,611 Sandhill Cranes on the property; almost nine times the human population of the town. It’s a good thing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film The Birds was purely fiction!
Although this area has likely been the crane’s prominent fall migratory staging point for thousands of years, over-hunting and habitat loss took a major toll on these birds, and in the decade of the 1880’s, populations of Sandhill Cranes like several other large bird species were on a steep decline. In 1929, the State of Indiana began making plans and acquiring the property that would eventually become the now 8,000+ acre area known as Jasper/Pulaski FWA. 1929 also ominously marks the last time in the 20th century that Sandhill Cranes were seen nesting in Indiana. By 1940, there were reportedly fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in North America, but thanks to coordinated conservation efforts, since 1979, populations have been steadily increasing and the vision that began in 1929 can now be seen every October and November by those who take the time to travel to Jasper/Pulaski FWA.
Sandhill Cranes at Jasper Pulaski FWA
For many people, Thanksgiving is a time for family, but did you know Sandhill Cranes have a strong family bond as well? Individuals are monogamous, mate for life, stay with their partners year-round and can stay together for 20 years or more. Even after breeding is completed, males often continue to court their partner with bows, dances and mid-air displays. The offspring, known as “colts” are born in the Great Lakes region and Canada, and are also part of the strong family bond. In the fall, the young cranes migrate south with their parents, which includes a stop-over staging point at Jasper/Pulaski FWA where they stock up on nourishment needed for their journey in the form of grains, tubers, insects and even small vertebrates such as mice and snakes. Eventually, the families of cranes will leave Jasper/Pulaski en route to their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. The migration route is a learned one that is passed on from parents to young, which makes the first year’s migration critical in the life cycle of the birds. The young birds remain with their parents through the winter in the southern United States and even for the journey northward in the spring back to the breeding grounds where the young will eventually part company from their parents, but typically won’t themselves breed for several years.
In the season that is customary for giving thanks, included in my list of things that I’m thankful for are the efforts to preserve species such as the Sandhill Crane as well as habitat like that of Jasper/Pulaski, which plays a crucial role in their life history and survival. In all your holiday gatherings this month, consider taking a trip to see this amazing gathering that we as Hoosiers have the privilege to not only enjoy, but are responsible for preserving.
Perhaps the great naturalist Aldo Leopold phrased it best when he wrote in his book A Sand County Almanac, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins as in art with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
Sandhill Cranes at a glimpse:
Description: Sandhill Cranes are very large, brownish gray birds (3-5’ tall with a 6-7’ wingspan) with a red cap.
Similar species: Whooping Cranes are white instead of gray and somewhat larger. Great Blue Herons are sometimes mistakenly called “Cranes.”
Range: North America and eastern Siberia. The habitat for Sandhill Cranes is typically now freshwater wetlands and agricultural fields.
Where and when to see them:
Spring: Sandhill Cranes are one of the harbingers of spring! In the Dunes, listen for their trumpeting calls and look for the unorganized “V” pattern of birds migrating north. Somewhat farther south, the agricultural fields areas around the Kankakee River are typically full of migratory cranes in March.
Summer: For approximately 80 years, you wouldn’t find Sandhill Cranes in Indiana in the summer months. Thanks to conservation efforts, in the early part of this century, Sandhills are once again began breeding in fields and wetlands of northern Indiana.
Fall: October and November are the prime months to observe Sandhill Cranes at the Jasper/Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, 5822 Fish and Wildlife Ln, Medaryville, IN 47957. Sunrise and sunset provide the optimal times of seeing them from the observation platform.
In the 1920s, the fossilized remains of a crane wing estimated to be nearly 10-million years old was found in eastern Nebraska. Scientists believe that this came from a now extinct close relative of the Sandhill Crane.
Fossils of Sandhill Cranes, as we know them today have been dated back to the Pliocene Period, which means they existed here close to their current form as far back as 3.5 – 5.3 million years ago.
Sandhill Cranes are one of 15 species of cranes in the world, and one of two crane species in North America.
There are a least five recognized subspecies of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in North America (Lesser, Greater, Mississippi, Florida and Cuban). The latter three are non-migratory and are federally listed as Endangered Species.
The hunting of Sandhill Cranes is currently allowed in sixteen states including Kentucky and Tennessee.
Last month, the Michigan House of Representatives passed House Resolution 154 urging the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to create a Sandhill Crane hunting season. The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. James Lower (R) said that the Sandhill Crane season would give Michigan hunters a chance to eat the “ribeye of the sky.”
Take a trip to Jasper Pulaski to see the Sandhill Cranes. Details here.