Sandhill Cranes

Article by John Lehman, LoonCorps

Crane Mom and ChickThere is a pair of nesting sandhill cranes near the south end of Round Lake—the one midway between Petoskey and Harbor Springs. They can sometimes be observed with binoculars from the Alanson bike trail where it follows the shoreline. My wife and I moved from Sault Ste. Marie to a condo on Round Lake about a year ago and have enjoyed watching and hearing the loons and cranes that hang out not far from our new home.


Back in the Soo we would occasionally hear the loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes and rush out to our deck to see if we could spot any. I remember one April day when a flock of high-flying cranes circled over our house, then gradually drifted off to the northwest while uttering their strange, prehistoric-sounding calls. In other parts of the U.P. we would sometimes see hundreds of cranes in flight at migration time.


The call of the sandhill crane is a sound almost impossible to describe. My Sibley field guide calls it a resonating wooden rattle; it has also been described as a loud, bugling, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o that can be heard more than a mile away. It makes me think of a rusty, creaky swinging gate. Years ago I saw a science fiction movie—the name long since forgotten—in which fake pterodactyls flew clumsily across the screen uttering their prehistoric calls, which, quite amazingly, were identical to the calls of modern sandhill cranes. Movie special effects were in their infancy then, so the B movie producers apparently weren’t able to create appropriate pterodactyl calls and borrowed the crane vocalizations instead.

A typical sandhill crane has a gray body, white cheeks, a bright red cap, and a long dark bill. Our sandhill cranes are usually a rusty brown color because they preen their feathers with mud stained with iron oxide. In flight, a crane’s long black legs trail behind and its very long neck is stretched straight ahead, with broad wings spanning about 6½ feet in between, so that it resembles a long-fuselaged airplane when seen from below.

Cranes are well-known for their dancing skills. Crane choreography may involving bowing to one another, running, jumping high in the air, wing flapping, and tossing sticks around. They dance during courtship but also at other times, for no obvious reason. Ornithologists think they do this to improve their motor skills or relieve tension, but could it be that they’re just having fun?

Today at least 13 states in the West and Midwest, including my former home state of Kansas, allow hunting of sandhill cranes. The hunters claim that cranes are edible, which is apparently true, although the only really edible part is the breast. I hunted when I was much younger and I don’t disapprove of hunting itself—our ancestors hunted to survive and some native populations still do. But I would no more shoot a sandhill crane than I would shoot a robin or an indigo bunting. The crane with its raspy voice may not be a songbird, but it is a magnificent bird with a complex social life. Shooting cranes for sport, or even for the small amount of edible meat on its frame, is not my idea of fun.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the calls of sandhill cranes sound ancient—the birds themselves are ancient. Today most sandhill cranes use migratory staging areas along Nebraska’s Platte River, and fossil evidence shows that cranes have been in Nebraska for millions of years. A fossilized wing bone dating back about ten million years was found there in the 1920s and shown to be identical to that of the modern sandhill crane, Grus canadensis. That would make the sandhill crane the oldest known bird species still surviving. Spoilsport scientists are cautious about making such a claim without more evidence, saying that the fossil wing might have belonged to an older species of Grus, but I find it comforting to think that the cranes that flew over our Soo house are the latest in a line that began ten million years ago. I wonder…will we humans still be around after ten million years? Considering our tendency to foul our own nest, inviting environmental disasters, I rather doubt it.
(Sault Ste. Marie, April 21, 2013)

Click below to watch the Round Lake Sandhill Crane pair’s courtship dance.


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