In a Cree Indian creation story of how cranes acquired their red crowns and long legs, a rabbit wished to go to the moon and asked many birds to help him get there, but no bird could help out. Crane eventually offered to take Rabbit to the moon, so Rabbit grasped Crane’s legs and up they went.
Once the pair arrived at the moon, Rabbit wanted to give a gift of thanks to Crane, so he touched Crane’s head, causing it to become red. And because of Rabbit’s weight, the legs of Crane became stretched. And to this day, all cranes heads are red and their legs are long.
Indeed, everything about the sandhill crane is “stretched.” Possessing very long legs, a long neck, and a very long wingspan, it’s no wonder that people everywhere have revered cranes for their power, grace, and beauty.
Sandhill cranes belong to the avian order Gruiformes, the same order as rails and coots. And of cranes, no other crane is as abundant worldwide as the sandhill crane. Their total, worldwide population is estimated at more than 650,000. To compare, the entire population of the larger and related whooping crane of North America is around 600 individual birds, including between 100 to 200 captive whooping cranes. Furthermore, there are six recognized subspecies of sandhill crane. Here in Minnesota we enjoy the company of two populations of greater sandhill cranes (the mid-continent and eastern populations). The other five sandhill crane subspecies are the lesser, Canadian, Florida, Mississippi, and Cuban sandhill cranes.
On a recent cross-county trip from my rural Hubbard County home to southeastern Otter Tail County, I drove through some of the finest farmland and hilly wooded countryside that Minnesota offers. On a stretch of county highway between Menahga and Bluffton, I was surprised to encounter several fields full of sandhill cranes. In all, I’m certain I observed several hundreds of the birds. One field with perhaps a hundred birds alone was immediately adjacent to a farmstead and the highway. Their seeming comfort at feeding and staging so near to human dwellings and vehicles whizzing nearby was also unexpected for what normally is a very wary and somewhat reclusive bird.
Primarily a bird of freshwater wetlands and marshes, large flocks of sandhill cranes are also frequently seen feeding on agricultural fields, particularly during the fall migration. It is not uncommon to see grain stubble fields in the northern Red River Valley dotted with sandhill cranes.
As already alluded, sandhill cranes are large birds. With a wingspans of over 6 feet and body lengths exceeding 45 inches, it’s easy to understand why people sometime mistake these birds for something else, especially from a distance when their great size and grayish plumage may resemble that of perhaps deer. Their long legs and long necks give them an almost dinosaurian appearance. They can reach weights of more than 10 pounds.
In reference to sandhill cranes’ prehistoric appearance, one shouldn’t be astonished that the birds show up in the fossil record a very long time ago—some 2.5 million years ago to perhaps as long as 10 million years ago. By comparison, most living species of birds are represented in the fossil record beginning some 1.8 million years ago. It’s possible that prehistoric cranes were a different species of crane of course, yet the similarities of these ancient fossils to extant, modern-day sandhill cranes is indisputable.
Both sexes of sandhill cranes have red crowns, but first-year juveniles lack this trait. When they prepare to fly, sandhill cranes will generally run into the wind several steps before becoming airborne. Once in the air, cranes often fly in waterfowl-like “V” formations, with their long legs held straight out and trailing rigidly behind their bodies and calling as they fly. Cranes also hold their necks straight out in front of them while flying, too—also like waterfowl do and unlike how great blue herons fly (herons curve their necks in an “S” and rest the back of their heads on their shoulders when flying—a key feature when distinguishing between a flying heron and a flying crane!).
Like so many creatures that perform elaborate courtship displays during the mating season, sandhill cranes add yet another courtship oddity to the incredible variation of rituals that exists in the world of birds. A pair of sandhill cranes performs graceful motions that can, without much imagination, be likened to a dance.
The dances are performed most notably during the spring breeding season and are therefore believed to assist in establishing pair bonds. Pairs of cranes jump up and down facing each other, with wings extended, over and over again. The male will often grasp and toss vegetation like grasses and stems into the air while leaping upward as each bird occasionally vocalizes.
Field guidebooks often describe the vocalizations of sandhill cranes as “rattling” in character with rolling “bugle-like” qualities, often further qualifying the descriptions with much “variability” or “variation.” However their extraordinary voices are portrayed, the calls of sandhill cranes are on equal terms as quintessential wildness as that of the howls of gray wolves, the bugles of rutting bull elk, and the wails and yodels of common loons.
Surprisingly large with a surprising voice, it should nonetheless come as no surprise that species of cranes the world over have always inspired legend, art, and adoration among we human observers. And right now is a good time to observe the annual fall migration of sandhill cranes here in northwestern Minnesota as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.