The World? Moonlit
From the crane’s bill.
- Eihei Dogen
In Japan the crane is a revered and mystical bird that symbolizes good fortune because of its fabled thousand-year lifespan. In actuality cranes have a life span of 20 to 30 years in the wild, but this doesn’t make these large, elegant birds any less magical. Watching a swoop of sandhills arriving at the roost at dusk is a truly unique experience.
Sandhill cranes are thought to be one of the oldest living avian species on earth. They are found throughout most of North America. Their range is south to Mexico and Cuba, and as far west as Siberia. Migratory subspecies of sandhill cranes breed in northern continental U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.These large birds, which can stand four feet tall with a wingspan of five or six feet, are on the increase in Ohio. Small numbers of breeding sandhill cranes have been present since 1985, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reports that the population has grown over the last few years as new habitat is being developed.
Sandhills migrate through each fall on their way to winter in the South. Then in spring they return north to start nesting preparations. Their nests are built on the ground in a mound of vegetation. Two young are usually born each year and stay with their parents for about ten months. When they reach sexual maturity at about 3 to 5 years old, they find mates of their own.
Sandhill cranes are monogamous and mating pairs frequently perform dancing displays during courtship. Cranes leap and frolic while circling each other and calling back and forth. They often do these dances when courting but can occasionally be seen performing with their partner year round. Cranes sleep at night standing on the ground. They generally prefer to stand in shallow water, often on one leg, with their heads and necks tucked on their shoulder or under one of their wings. In the breeding season they sleep at or near to their nests so they can guard their eggs or chicks.
Sandhills seem to be the most vocal when they return to the roost at dusk. The call of the sandhill crane is a loud, low-pitched trumpeting. This call is produced by the crane’s unique anatomy. Since their windpipe is much longer than that of most birds and it loops down into the bird’s sternum, they are capable of producing a distinctive array of sounds.
Cranes are so vocal because they have a highly developed communication system that functions to keep the family together, to signal danger, and to reinforce the pair-bond. Their unison call is a duet done by a breeding pair in which the male has a one-note call, and the female a two-note call.
Sandhills may be seen and heard in our area during the fall, winter, and early spring, but the best time is during their fall migration from early October through late December. Here are three locations to view Sandhills:
—Brookville Lake mudflats on north Treaty Line Road, west of Liberty, Indiana south of SR 44, directly west across the lake from Whitewater State Park. This is a 1 1/2 hour drive from
—Whitewater Memorial State Park , 1418 S State Rd 101, Liberty, IN 47353 - from the Silver
Creek Boat Ramp or the State Park Cabins looking west. This is about an hour drive from
—Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area , 5822 Fish and Wildlife Ln, Medaryville, IN 47957. This is the best option for viewing thousands of Cranes during their fall migration although it is a 3½ hour drive from Cincinnati.
My recent soundscape composition Sandhill Cranes in the Dusk, is based on a field recording made at the Brookville Lake mudflats this past October. Try listening at a moderate volume over good speakers or headphones.
* This article first appeared in EarthCare a monthly newsletter publication of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, edited by John Tallmadge and Julia Malkin.