Magnificent Sandhill Cranes : KC's Blog
KC's Wild Facts

(Kool Cat)

(Kool Cat)
KC's Wild Facts 

Magnificent Sandhill Cranes

by Kool Cat KC on 05/11/15

First you hear them. Their cackling and purring. Like hundreds of kids at a ball game when they’re giving away tee-shirts. Then you see them. Flying in loose vees. Not soldierly, like geese. More like a family at the mall, changing from second to second, stragglers everywhere. Back in ancient Greece, it was thought that cranes form hieroglyphs—symbols—in the sky. The whisper of their wings, whomp, whomp, whomp, brushes by you, soft, but loud enough to hear from the ground. To me, they were the most beautiful, most majestic birds I have ever seen—sandhill cranes. Beginning in February and ending around the end of April, between 400,000 and 600,000 sandhill cranes congregate on the Platte River valley in Nebraska. They come from their winter grounds in Chihuahua, Mexico and in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. They are in Nebraska to feed on the corn kernels left over by farmers after the corn was cut the previous fall. They are heading to the Arctic and just south of the arctic—on the Yukon and even into Siberia, in Russia—where they will spend 40-50 days nesting, laying their eggs and raising their babies. This migration has been taking place for millions of years. From research scientists have conducted, we know that sandhill cranes return to the same stretch of the Platte River each year. Thousands of people, like me come to see them in the Platte River Valley, because they are truly a spectacle. Cranes have been around more than 34 million years. Think about it. Most of the life forms that ever existed are now extinct—99% of them. But the cranes are still around. And they haven’t changed all that much. They are just about the same now as they were 10 million years ago! There is something about cranes that makes us love to watch them. Sandhill cranes are majestic. They are between three and four feet tall and the color of steel with a patch of read on their forehead. Their head often bobs and jabs as they move. The tips of their wings are black, when outstretched, the wingspan is more than five feet. When they move, they look like they are on stilts. Cool fact: Their knees serve as heels and they walk on their toes. On the Platte River valley, they feed on the left over corn, but they also like to eat insects, snails, frogs and even snakes! When they fly, they don’t use the even up and down motion of geese. Their rhythm is different. the down motion is twice as long as the up motion. The windpipe of sandhill cranes is shaped like a saxophone. Their neck, like you see in the pictures, is really long. Their calls carry for a mile. Sandhill cranes are named like horses. Males are roans, females are mares. Babies are called colts. They mate for life, and they communicate using sound and “dances.” Pairs often call at the same time. Roans point their beaks straight up in the air. Mares at a 45° angle. Her calls are higher pitched than his. She calls twice as fast as he does. When they roost in the evenings, during the nights and early mornings, they purr. It’s like the sound of a very gentle engine: rrrrrrr. During the day, they scatter over the cornfields near the Platte, in smaller groups. Sometimes a family group of three or four. Sometimes an extended group of 10 or twenty. Sometimes they group in the hundreds. Why do you think that would be? Maybe they found a particularly good field! In the fields you’ll see them eating, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see them dancing. You might even see them marching, all in a line, following a leader. Sandhill crane parents teach their chicks to dance. They teach them to bow. Chicks learn their moves for three years before they try to mate. Sandhill cranes are very wary of humans. Try to get close to them, the whole flock will fly off as if they were just one bird. They definitely communicate. For instance, a scout will go to a different location. That scout gives a call which lets the others know it’s safe to come. When I went to watch the sandhill cranes, I had hoped to see them dance (I did see them jump a bit) and get close to them. I stayed out late in the cold Nebraska evening, got up way before dawn to camp out by a river, all bundled up to wait for their taking off. We went from field to field during the day to see if we could catch some courtship displays. We didn’t see any dancing, and we never were able to get very close, but just being there, seeing wave after wave of black tipped red-headed cranes flying down to roost for the night in the near distance was magnificent. We were surrounded by their calls. We saw them arch their wings as they lowered themselves like ballerina’s into the river flats. We saw them, in the morning, take off in one group—it was over in seconds—the sights and sounds washing over us. It definitely was not disappointing. It just made me want to come back to Nebraska, for longer next time. Normally, when I write on this blog, I talk about scientists’ work. This blog I wrote about something I loved. One thing I want to point out, though, is that there are hundreds of volunteers in Nebraska who are doing all they can to keep the habitat for the sandhill cranes safe and healthy so that they will continue to be able to use that area as their feeding grounds for their long trip north. Check out the sounds I recorded during my visit with the cranes and some cool videos of cranes moving and dancing. I researched my information from these sources. “Flight Club,” an article in Smithsonian Magazine’s March 2014 issue By Alex Shoumatoff.

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