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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Sandhill Cranes


It’s earlier than it used to be, but I have seen cranes locally already this year. Historically, cranes came back mid-March to establish territories, nested in April, and the eggs hatched near Mother’s Day. In the past several years eggs have been found in March already, and at least four of the cranes never left the county this winter. Those that did leave wintered in the northern third of Florida for the most part, although some are now stopping for the winter in Tennessee. Once they catch the winds at the upper levels they can cover 500 miles in a day at a speed of 50 mph.

I attended a Citizen Science Night for Indiana Master Naturalist alumni last Tuesday and learned a lot about cranes from Mark Weldon of the Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Cranes nested in Indiana until 1929. They left due to unregulated hunting and the draining of the wetlands. They returned in 1982 and even now they only nest in Northern Indiana. Steuben County has the most nesting pairs and LaGrange County is second with 29 nesting pairs. There are six subspecies of cranes. The ones we usually see are the greater sandhill cranes. Lesser sandhills are occasionally seen here in migration and are about half the size of the greaters. Our cranes are doing well and spreading eastward.

Males can weigh 12 pounds and females weigh about 9.5 pounds. They are indistinguishable by looks alone. You can easily distinguish them from other birds in the air because of their long necks. Herons fold their necks in flight and cranes leave them stretched out. You can also easily tell them by their call. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t forget it or confuse it with any other bird. The birds are gray, which doesn’t seem right if you’ve seen one in person. That’s because we see them mostly during the breeding season and during that time they preen their feathers with our soil which gives them the reddish brown color we usually associate with them. They live in wetland areas and the iron oxide deposits in the wetlands color the soil and hence the bird.

Sandhill cranes mate for life, but they will find a new mate if something happens to a mate. Also, they believe in trial marriages: if a mating pair fails to have a successful nest the first year, they may find new mates in the next year. (I realize I’m anthropomorphizing them, but I’m writing for a local newspaper, not a science textbook.) They nest on the ground or in shallow water. Generally they lay two eggs, about three days apart. The eggs are 4” x 2.4” and they hatch in 32 days. If the parents aren’t vigilant, the older baby will kill the later born one. With their long, sharp bills, cranes are able to defend their young from most predators like raccoons and foxes, but coyotes and feral dogs are an increasing threat. The babies, properly called colts, are born agile. They can swim and follow their parents immediately. The nest is only used for three or four nights after the colts hatch and then it is abandoned. Colts stay with their parents through the winter and return with them in the spring, but once they have reached the parents’ nesting territory the parents drive them off to start their own lives. Cranes don’t nest in colonies like herons do. They like their isolation. They don’t mate until age three.

If you want to see thousands of cranes together, you can take a drive in October or November to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, but we have a lot here in our county in autumn, also. Last year there were more than 1,200 at the Waterfowl Resting Area in the Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area. April 13 is the annual Crane Count sponsored by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisc. Trained census takers will be in the wetlands, listening for and looking for cranes from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. For more information on the count and on all species of cranes, check the International Crane Foundation’s website at and keep looking for more signs of spring!