Although still somewhat unusual, sightings of sandhill cranes in fields, meadows and wetlands of the Northwoods are increasingly common. Sandhill cranes are currently a nongame species, but could that change?
Generally speaking, sandhill cranes are a familiar sight—and sound—in much of Wisconsin. They are less concentrated in the Northwoods, but you can find them in rural areas as well as locations like Woodboro Lakes, Thunder Marsh, Powell Marsh, and many shallow wetlands and wild rice beds. You can usually see them in larger groups in the early spring and again in fall, while in the process of migrating. This time of year, you can see them in smaller family groups. They are usually out in pastures, grasslands, wetlands and farm fields foraging for seeds and other fodder. Sometimes they will eat berries, even smaller live prey like frogs, insects, snakes, and small mammals. I have even had first-hand accounts of cranes raiding other birds’ nests in spring and eating eggs or nestling birds. Generally, though, they are herbivores and focus on plants and plant parts.
At one time, these birds were in danger of going extinct; a combination of habitat loss and overharvest in the 1800s led to such a dramatic decline that they were one of the species eventually protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916. Wisconsin was one of the last strongholds for this bird, and special areas were set aside in the central part of the state to give them optimal breeding conditions. Cranes are not prolific breeders like some other migratory birds (such as ducks and geese). They usually lay two eggs, three at the most. Both parents help incubate the eggs and raise their young, called colts, for the first year of their life. When the parents are ready to nest again the next spring, the youngsters set out on their own to find other juveniles to hang out with. They reach maturity at the age of 4 or 5, when they seek out a mate of their own. Cranes mate for life, which can be 25 or 30 years.
Today, Sandhill cranes are abundant across our state. Annual crane counts tell us that there are hundreds of thousands of Sandhills in the Midwest and around the country. Our local subspecies is the Eastern Sandhill crane, whose estimated numbers exceed 100,000 individuals. Wisconsin hosts the largest breeding population of the Eastern sandhill cranes of any state in the flyway. Our farmers have probably seen the greatest impacts of a large population in the form of significant agricultural damage. In fact, the question of a possible managed hunt for these birds has come up a couple of times in recent years. Since these birds are protected by state law, it would take an act of the state legislature to legalize a hunt. I just read a recent article from the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association about their policy committee identifying legalizing sandhill crane hunting as a goal. This well-written article, written by WWA Vice President Todd Schaller, does a great job encapsulating the identified opportunities and challenges. As a hunter, I would look forward to having an opportunity to hunt these birds; from what I have heard, their meat is very tasty, earning them the nickname “ribeye of the sky.” If you are familiar with my other writings, you know that I am very fond of species I hunt, including ducks, geese, turkeys, grouse, deer, bear, you get the idea. Cranes would be no exception.
When I see and hear a flock of Sandhill cranes, with a 6-7 foot wingspan gliding as high as 5,000 feet above the ground, I just can’t help but marvel. I think if I had been alive to see pteronodons (what we called pterodactyls as kids) it would have looked and sounded a lot like these birds. In fact, Sandhill cranes are thought to be one of our oldest extant (meaning non-extinct) bird species. Fossils of a crane closely related to the Sandhill crane have been found and dated to the Pleistocene era, which means these birds have survived more than one ice age so one day their descendants could join us here in the 21st century. With responsible management wildlife biologists have demonstrated they can collaborate with other stakeholders to ensure a healthy, sustainable population of cranes for generations to come.