Sandhill Cranes: Sojourners from the North
Guest post by Elizabeth Blaker, Photos by Dyer Lytle
The distant wild trumpeting of cranes and geese on the wing raised the hair on the back of my neck from the sheer thrill of it. I had never seen nor heard such multitudes of geese, cranes, and ducks flying over until my first trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. From up the Rio Grande waves and waves of approaching birds were faint charcoal scribbles against the twilight sky. Closer and closer they came, slowly resolving into distinct V’s. The first arriving snow geese circled the flooded fields, splashing down into the water like seaplanes. Ducks flew high with quick short wing-beats, while the longer wing-beats of the geese rowed the air. The first V’s of Sandhill Cranes sailed in, as light as thistledown, circling low, their ululations like a declaration of triumph. Barely skimming the water’s surface, they brought their legs forward and dropped out of the sky, landing with a light hop or two.
Around twenty-thousand Sandhill Cranes and a similar number of geese winter in the Middle Rio Grande Valley each year. The geese come from as far away as Canada, while the Sandhill Cranes breed in the northern states, Canada, and on up into Siberia. They are sojourners from the north, reminding me of distant summer prairies, lakes, and sloughs, and also of a time before history when birds filled the sky without number.
|Sandhill crane take-off.|
|Three sandhill cranes trumpet in unison.|
Sandhill Cranes disperse over large areas on their breeding grounds. They are territorial nesters, sometimes fighting each other over prime sites. Though they form strong pair bonds that can last many years, if a mate dies, the widow or widower crane will usually find a new mate. Once settled at the breeding grounds a crane couple will begin age old mating rituals. First they smear mud and rotting vegetation into their feathers. If the soil is rich in iron, their feathers retain a tinge of rust well into winter. Biologists posit that it aids in camouflaging the birds during their long vigil of nest sitting. After the feathers have been properly adorned with mud, the male throws his head back and utters a series of loud, vibrating honks. The female raises her head, but not as far, and replies with trumpet blasts of her own. They may perform several rounds of raucous duets. The duets strengthen the bonds between the pair and stimulates a flood of hormones in the female that prepares her ovaries for breeding. The blaring songs also proclaim their territory to other cranes. Though the duets are an important part of the mating ritual, Sandhill Cranes can be seen calling this way on their wintering grounds as well, and sometimes the fledglings join in. Researchers suspect unison calling at these times is likely to ward off aggression in crowds of other cranes.
|A sandhill crane approaches a landing and puts its feet down in anticipation.|
Though the male may attempt to help her, the female ignores his offers of nest materials and builds a simple bowl of grasses and twigs on the ground. Over two days she will lay two spotted eggs. These the couple will incubate, taking turns at nest-sitting and guarding for thirty days. Finally the parent cranes hear the older chick peeping inside its egg, the shell cracks, and over many hours the chick frees itself with no help from them. The second chick hatches two days later. Sometimes the chicks fight with each other and the older may kill the younger, but if the parents manage to separate them, one chick will follow mom, and the other will follow dad. The parents teach the chicks how to find tasty roots, insects and other morsels.
|Sandhill cranes flying against an orange New Mexico sunset.|
As recently as the 1930’s, the Sandhill Cranes were nearly finished off by hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to the unceasing efforts of a crew of dedicated amateur and professional ornithologists, refuges were established at breeding, migratory staging, and wintering grounds. Hunting was banned. Over many years the population of Sandhill Cranes rebounded. Hunting is now allowed in several states, but not wantonly. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies carefully monitor crane populations and the numbers of birds killed. But I do wonder, who could stand at the edge of a marsh listening to the wild cries of birds on the wing, seeing these stately sojourners from the north riding the air currents down from the heavens, and not be moved?
This article originally appeared on dyerlytle.com/ravendreaming/