Sandhills: The comeback cranes

Photo by Chip Gross

Standing 4 feet tall with a wingspan up to 7 feet, sandhill cranes are hard to miss. To make identification even easier, adults sport the colors of a certain prominent college football team: scarlet and gray. Young cranes, known as colts, begin life as little balls of golden-brown fluff.

Unfortunately, there are relatively few of these birds in Ohio. So few, in fact, they’re considered a state-threatened species. That’s not the case nationally, as sandhill cranes are so numerous in some southern states and many states west of the Mississippi, they’re considered game birds, with hunting seasons set annually.

The good news is that the population of sandhill cranes in Ohio has increased in recent years.

“Sandhill’s a wetland-dependent species, and its numbers were low for a long time in the Great Lakes region and eastern U.S.,” says Laura Kearns, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “But with protection from unregulated hunting, coupled with wetlands protection and restoration, they have been gradually increasing since the mid-1900s. Populations in neighboring states and provinces like Michigan and Ontario have been increasing dramatically, so there is some spillover into Ohio from those populations, as well.”

Kearns says the sandhill cranes migrating through Ohio each fall — beginning as early as September — are headed south to spend the winter in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. Although most of the sandhills returning north through Ohio again in the spring do not nest here, more and more reproduction is being documented. Last year, 45 breeding pairs and 25 young were observed statewide. Kearns says those are conservative estimates, based largely on reports from the public.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the sandhill crane is its tendency to “dance.” Although it’s an integral part of their courtship display, the birds can be seen pirouetting any time of year. The dance of the sandhill includes many quick steps, wings half-spread, with an occasional leap into the air as high as 8 feet off the ground. Part of this ceremony also includes bowing toward one another. It’s an important part of the bird’s spring courtship, but researchers aren’t sure why the behavior often continues throughout the year.

Sandhill cranes migrate during daylight hours and at high altitudes, usually thousands of feet in the air. Surprisingly, they don’t flap their wings much when doing so. Instead, they prefer to spiral up on heat thermals then gradually glide down, repeating that sequence time after time until they get where they want to go.

Even though thousands of cranes may be on the move simultaneously, they are migrating in relatively small flocks of only a dozen or so birds per group. Unlike with many other birds, crane migration routes are a learned behavior, meaning the adults must show the young where to go their first fall and where to return the following spring.

Where to see the sandhill crane

If you’d like to see sandhill cranes in the wild, grab your binoculars and visit any of these Ohio wildlife areas or refuges:
  • Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area (Wayne County)
  • Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (Ottawa County)
  • Sandy Ridge Reservation of Lorain County Metro Parks (Lorain County)
  • Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area (Trumbull County)
  • Lake La Su An Wildlife Area (Williams County)
  • Deer Creek Wildlife Area (Pickaway County)
If you’re in the mood for a longer road trip, Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana is highly recommended. Migrating sandhill cranes pile into the refuge by the thousands from surrounding crop fields each evening during fall, with November being the peak month. So many birds use the refuge annually that a huge observation platform has been built for viewing. As flock after flock of cranes wings in, circling and calling to one another, the sights and sounds are truly spectacular — a wildlife experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.
W.H. “Chip” Gross, a Consolidated Cooperative member, is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor.