A Trumpet In The Orchestra: The Migration Patterns Of Sandhill Cranes

January 10th, 2018

Aldo Leopold, the father of modern day wildlife management, wrote about the Sandhill Cranes saying “When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” The fossils of a bird with identical structure to the Sandhill Crane has been carbon dated to have lived 10 million years ago making the Sandhill Crane the longest surviving bird on the planet. Standing at over 4 feet tall and having a wing span of over 6 feet, the Sandhill Crane is one of the largest birds found in the Eastern United States. They are gray in color with a long neck, long legs and a long pointed beak used for probing in the soil for seeds and insects.  The Sandhill Cranes also have a distinctive red patch on their forehead which is larger on the males.  During breeding season, the cranes will increase the blood flow to this area on the forehead creating a bright red color to attract their potential mates. They usually live in areas with large open fields and shallow water.  Their primary food sources are seeds, insects, and benthic macroinvertebrates. 

Every year, these magnificent birds migrate from the Prairie Pothole region of the upper midwest and southern Canada down to gulf coast.  While in flight, the Sandhill Cranes call constantly. These calls can be heard from over a mile away and help the cranes keep their flight pattern. They typically fly in a V formation and can be easily distinguished from Geese by the long legs trailing behind them. Starting in 1990, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) began a program to make Eastern Tennessee a stopover location for these migratory birds.  One of the locations chosen was the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood Tennessee.  Here a flock of some 80,000 Sandhill Cranes will stop to rest and feed during their migration South.  TWRA plants this area every year in corn to supply some of the food needs and with shallow water nearby this creates an ideal location for the Cranes to rest.

Mixed within these large flocks of Sandhill Cranes there exists one of the most highly endangered birds in the United States.  The beautiful and majestic Whooping Crane is learning to migrate with the Sandhill Cranes.  There are only about 450 Whooping Cranes in the wild and about 160 in captivity.  These birds are slightly larger than the Sandhill Cranes and have bright white plumage.  When they started the recovery program in the 1940’s, there were only 21 Whooping Cranes left alive due to habitat loss and hunting. The Whooping Cranes were taken into captivity and bred.  Since there were no wild Whooping Cranes left, when they were released, they didn’t know how or where to migrate.  Scientists used an ultralight to guide the cranes during the migration and made the trip with the natural migration of the Sandhill Cranes.  These birds have since learned to migrate with the Sandhill Crane flocks.

Want to learn more about these amazing birds? Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in partnership with Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS) will be hosting a day of learning about the Sandhill Cranes on January 20, 2018.  We will start the day with Dr. David Aborn.  Dr. Aborn is the Ornithology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and has been involved with Sandhill Crane research at the Hiwassee Refuge for years. Starting at 12:00pm, he will give a brief history and discussion about the Sandhill Crane population that migrates through Tennessee. We will also provide an opportunity to view our captive Sandhill Cranes up close.  At around 1:30pm, we will board a tour bus and begin our trip out to the Hiwassee Refuge.  We will be met at the observation platform by members of TOS who will provide the use of their spotting scopes and be available to answer questions about the Sandhill Cranes. At approximately 4:30pm, we will board the tour bus and make our way back to Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center.  This will be a wonderful opportunity to learn about and enjoy these magnificent birds. 

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Posted by Corey Hagen

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