Sandhill Cranes

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

by Damian Fagan

It is an hour before dawn as we enter the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which is located about eight miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. We drive out onto the main dike with just our parking lights on, for there are already a number of bird watchers here, standing alongside their vehicles. Wisps of fog float about their heads as they anticipate the morning show.

Sandhill Cranes

Even in the dim light, we see a pair of coyotes darting along the dike, tongues hanging down and wearing grins the size of Delaware. The coyotes take an occasional detour and veer off of the road towards the ponds. Perhaps these are youngsters, because they don’t seem like they are hunting. They just seem like they are enjoying harassing the birds.

Farther, beyond the coyotes, we park and climb out of the vehicle and take in the scene. The air is charged with the static of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Canada geese, and various ducks floating on the ponds. Occasionally there is a rise in the timber, like an unexpected solar flare, that ripples through the crowd stirring up the already restless group.

Mass of birds

As the sky begins to lighten there is a sudden mass lift-off, an eruption of feathers and beaks as hundreds and hundreds of birds take to the air. This is the O’Hare of the Southwest, but instead of planes, it is birds that create an air traffic controller’s nightmare. Whooshing of wingbeats mixes in with the calls of geese and cranes – truly a site worth beholding, even on a chilling morning.

With their legs extended beyond their short tails, the sandhill cranes rise up in great swarms, circling on scant thermals and sorting themselves out into “V” formations. Their dark legs trail behind their bodies like fleshy streamers.

We have come for the cranes, specifically the sandhills (Grus canadensis). These cranes winter in the Southwest – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and northern Mexico. They come from parts of Alaska, Siberia, Canada and northern Mid-continent states. There are other populations from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest that spend their winters in California’s Central Valley, but that would constitute a much longer road trip from our Utah home.

These northern cranes follow either the Pacific or Central Flyways to their respective wintering grounds. Another group, located in the Southeastern U. S., represents non-migratory populations from Mississippi, Florida and even Cuba. But the birds here at the Bosque have hop-scotched their way south from their northern breeding grounds and come en masse to this USFWS Wildlife Refuge.

Identification

Sandhill cranes are split into six sub-species: the lesser, greater, Canadian (migratory ones) and the Mississippi, Cuban and Florida (non-migratory). Size and breeding latitudes separate the migratory and non-migratory groups. Lesser sandhills also occur west to Siberia and these arctic breeders are smaller, about three- to three-and-a-half-feet tall, and they weigh between six to seven pounds. In contrast, the greater sandhills breed in more temperate latitudes and stand four-and-a-half- to five-feet tall and weigh 10 to 14 pounds.

No matter the subspecies, the sandhills are wading birds, with long legs and long necks and bills that resemble a dark chisel. Bright red forehead feathers offset the ash-gray coloration of the adults. The immature birds lack these reddish feathers and have a coppery to rust-colored plumage that is the result of staining from iron oxide-rich waters. At one time these juveniles were called “little brown cranes” because they were thought to be a different species. Juveniles attain their adult plumage around two and a half years of age.

The adults have a “bustle” over their rump that is created by inner wing feathers when the wings are folded together over the back.

Breeding Season

Come spring, the sandhills will be gone from the Southwest, headed north to their breeding grounds on the marshes, bogs, wetlands, grasslands and tundra. Though the birds are highly gregarious in winter, they defend nesting territories from other sandhills in summer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the crane’s life history is the courtship ritual. Pairs will engage in a courtship dance, complete with coordinated vocalizations. The birds posture and leap about, flapping their wings and moving their bills to some ancient tune. They will bow low or throw sticks or grass into the air as they court one another. Easily observed because the birds occur in open areas, this activity is often associated with courtship, but even the juveniles participate at any time of the year. I guess practice makes perfect.

After courtship, sandhills build a mini-volcano-shaped nest of aquatic vegetation near or over water. The same pair may reuse a nest year after year. Though many birds nest in wetland-like habitats, some (like those in Cuba) nest in drier grassy uplands.

Typically two eggs are laid and the incubation lasts about a month. The young are precocial, meaning that they can soon walk after hatching. In fact, sandhills will follow their parents about a day after hatching. The juveniles will be able to fly in about two and a half to three months. They will remain with their parents for nine to ten months, or long enough for them to imprint on the migratory patterns of their ancestors.

Diet

Cranes are omnivores and their diets vary depending upon what’s in season and where they are. They are known to eat amphibians, reptiles, small birds, insects, rodents, snails, as well as plant roots, seeds or berries. The cranes will forage in agricultural fields, feeding on waste grain and small rodents. The large bills allow them to probe soft ground or pick up items ranging from grains to rodents.

The most important threat facing sandhill cranes is habitat loss or degradation of existing habitat. This species relies on riverine and wetland habitats for migratory staging and wintering, as well as breeding areas. Federal and state programs attempt to balance agricultural activities with foraging needs of the cranes.

Voice

To say that cranes have a song is like saying that Ella Fitzgerald is just a singer. The trumpeting “garoo-a-a-a” call of a crane can be heard over a mile away. The deep notes are created in the sandhill’s long windpipe or trachea. Proportionally much longer than a songbird’s, this windpipe passes from the throat through the sternum, where loops of the windpipe are housed in a cavity. From this cavity the windpipe exits the keel or breastbone and connects to the lungs. The trachea of a whooping crane, for instance, is about five feet long.

Name

The great Swedish naturalist Carl Von Linnaeus described the sandhills, giving them their scientific name, in 1758. The genera name Grus means “crane” and canadensis is for “of Canada,” a reference to their northern breeding habits.

When the morning show is over at the Bosque, we head back to our car to warm up, eat our breakfast and share a thermos of coffee. Above us, birds continue to fly about, but many are settling back down to forage in the water or nearby fields. We will spend the rest of the day birding the refuge and even get to see a couple of the whooping cranes (Grus american), the federally-listed endangered relatives of these sandhills.

 

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