The long history of a very large bird
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
Recently I received a couple of photos from a landowner who wanted me to tell them what they saw on their trail camera. I have seen many different creatures captured by these 24-hour observers—bobcats, cougars, moose, deer, flying squirrels, porcupines, raccoons and deer are just a few on the list. This one was a first for me, however; it was a sandhill crane.
Sandhill cranes are a familiar sight in Wisconsin. You can usually see them in larger groups in the early spring and again in fall, while in the process of migrating. This time of year, you can see them in smaller family groups. They are usually out in pastures, grasslands, wetlands and farm fields foraging for seeds and other forage. Sometimes they will eat berries, even smaller live prey like frogs, insects, snakes and small mammals. I have even had first-hand accounts of cranes raiding other birds’ nests in spring and eating eggs or nestling birds. Generally, though, they are herbivores and focus on plants and plant parts.
At one time, these birds were in danger of going extinct; a combination of habitat loss and overharvest in the 1800s led to such a dramatic decline that they were one of the species eventually protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916. Wisconsin was one of the last strongholds for this bird, and special areas were set aside in the central part of the state to give them optimal breeding conditions. Cranes are not prolific breeders like some other migratory birds (such as ducks and geese). They usually lay two eggs, three at the most. Both parents help incubate the eggs and raise their young, called colts, for the first year of their life. When the parents are ready to nest again, the youngsters set out on their own to find other juveniles to hang out with. They reach maturity at the age of 4 or 5, when they seek out a mate. Cranes mate for life, which can be 25 or 30 years.
Today, sandhill cranes are abundant across our state. They are less concentrated in the Northwoods, but you can find them in rural areas as well as locations like Thunder Marsh, Powell Marsh, and many shallow wetlands and wild rice beds. There are several subspecies of this crane, but counts tell us that there are hundreds of thousands of sandhills in the Midwest and around the country.
When I see and hear a flock of sandhill cranes, with a 6 to 7-foot wingspan gliding as high as 5,000 feet above the ground, I just can’t help but marvel. I think if I had been alive to see pteronodons (what we called pterodactyls as kids) it would have looked and sounded a lot like these birds. In fact, sandhill cranes are thought to be one of our oldest extant (meaning non-extinct) bird species. Fossils of a crane closely related to the sandhill crane have been found and dated to the Pleistocene era, which means these birds have survived more than one ice age so one day their descendants could join us here in the 21st century.
What was a sandhill crane doing in the woods in front of a trail camera? This property touches a river, which is a natural corridor and an ideal habitat choice for these birds. They likely stumbled on something tasty in front of the camera while foraging one day and decided to capitalize on it. If you would like to see the photos, check out my Facebook page, The Masked Biologist, or look for them on Instagram.
The Masked Biologist earned a bachelor of science degree from a university with a highly regarded Wildlife Biology program. He has worked for natural resource agencies from the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, which provided opportunities to work with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook.