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Wild Side: Returning sandhill cranes herald spring

US Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

On March 27, Carol and I were cleaning up the landing area where logs harvested from our woods had been stockpiled. The ground was frozen and snow still covered the landscape. During a break from running the chainsaw, we were pleased to hear the rattling kkkkar-r-r-o-o-o calls of a pair of sandhill cranes.

They were soaring in circles high in the sky. We thought they might be the advance scouts for the rest of their tribe.

The primeval calls of returning sandhill cranes are a sure sign that spring is on the way. Sandhill cranes are the most abundant species of crane in the world.

Recovering from intensive hunting earlier this century, they are becoming more abundant and have been expanding their breeding range in temperate parts of the northern U.S. and Canada.

Each spring about half a million of them -- three quarters of all sandhill cranes in the world -- stage on their northward migration along a 75-mile long reach of the Platte River near Kearney, Neb.

Many of them migrate on north through our area. Some pairs stay and nest here in the Trimbelle River Valley and along the South Fork of the Kinnickinnic River. Crex Meadows in Burnett County hosts many breeding pairs of sandhill cranes.

The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is one of the oldest living species of bird. Fossil cranes with essentially the same structure as today's sandhills have been found in Pliocene formations 2.5 million years old. Individual sandhill cranes can live up to 20 years old in the wild. These ancient and long-lived birds are real survivors.

On Friday, April 5, I watched a flock of more than 100 sandhill cranes fly over Ellsworth. When driving home I saw a pair of cranes standing close to County Road W along the Trimbelle River, patiently waiting for the snow to melt. Later that day we watched many flocks of cranes flying high and fast in 'V' formations heading north.

Sandhill cranes are big birds, standing over three feet tall with a six-foot wingspan. The adults have generally gray plumage with a red forehead and white cheeks.

Unlike Great Blue Herons that fly with their necks folded back, sandhill cranes fly with their necks straight out.

Adult pairs nest in April and May, usually in a wetland area. They do an elaborate mating ritual with unison calling and dancing with leaps into the air. The nest is a low mound of vegetation with usually two eggs. The male and female incubate the eggs for about 30 days. The chicks grow quickly and fledge (first flight) in about 70 days.

The chicks forage on high-protein insects. Adult sandhills are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates (e.g., mice and snakes), and invertebrates such as insects or worms.

The International Crane Foundation was founded in 1973 by ornithologists Ron Sauey and George Archibald on the Sauey family's farm near Baraboo. The ICF has developed effective community conservation programs, research projects, captive breeding and re-introduction efforts on five continents to protect the 15 species of cranes in the world.

In the U.S., the ICF is helping reduce conflicts between sandhill cranes and farmers and to restore a migratory population of the endangered whooping cranes.

The ICF world headquarters near Baraboo is well worth a visit. There are live crane exhibits, an educational visitor center and over four miles of nature trails through restored prairie, oak savanna and wetlands.

The sandhill cranes have announced that spring is coming. After this long winter we are looking forward to spring and watching the cranes dance.

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