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The Eldest of Living Birds

Returning from Camp Denali, our bus had stopped at one of the numerous areas of stunning natural beauty in Denali National Park. Autumn was well underway on this early September afternoon and snow coated many of the bushes and hillsides. As we walked around, stretching our legs and taking in a little more of the spectacular Alaskan wilderness, we heard the unmistakable sound of Sandhill Cranes. And then we saw them—thousands of them—flying towards us. A dense flock of Sandhill Cranes that stretched for miles. Soaring high above our heads and filling the air with the music of their calls, they began their journey back to California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Florida, and other states, repeating a migration they’ve undertaken for millions of years.

Of the nearly ten thousand bird species alive today, the Sandhill enjoys a rare distinction: it may well be the eldest of all bird species surviving into the 21st century. Paleontologists have found a fossil of a Sandhill Crane (“unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida”) that lived as long as 2.5 million years ago. They’ve even found a fossil (in Nebraska) nearly anatomically identical to modern Sandhill Cranes (but believed possibly to belong to an earlier species, the likely ancestors of the modern Sandhill Crane) from nearly ten million years ago.

Think about that for a minute. As long as two and a half million years ago, at nearly the same time Homo erectus (the likely ancestor of our own species) arose in East Africa, Sandhill Cranes flew above North American skies just as they do today. Sharing those skies with the now-extinct Giant Condor, ancient sandhills called to one another as they soared, watching Mastodon and camelids graze the vegetation below them while direwolves and saber-toothed cats stalked them. Today, that same species annually migrates to nesting areas in Canada, Alaska and a handful of western and northern states before returning—along with Snow Geese and other waterfowl—to wintering grounds in Arizona, New Mexico and other locations providing the habitat it needs. Talk about continuity.

“Sandhill Cranes,” we learn from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “are very large, tall birds with a long neck, long legs, and very broad wings.”

Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, Sandhill Cranes have an elegance that draws attention. These tall, gray-bodied, crimson-capped birds breed in open wetlands, fields, and prairies across North America. They group together in great numbers, filling the air with distinctive rolling cries. Mates display to each other with exuberant dances that retain a gangly grace. Sandhill Crane populations are generally strong, but isolated populations in Mississippi and Cuba are endangered.

The birds generally mate for life and share parental duties. The cranes “usually nest in wetlands and create a structure from whatever plants may be at hand. Females typically lay two eggs, which both parents incubate. Males take responsibility for defending the nest.”

The adults also share feeding responsibilities. From the National Audubon Society, we learn that nestlings “leave the nest within a day after hatching” and follow their parents as they forage. While both adults feed the chicks, the young cranes quickly learn how to fend for themselves. Successful chicks can begin flying as soon as “65-75 days” after hatching. But the chicks don’t stray very far from their parents, remaining with them for “9-10 months” and “accompanying them in migration.”

A few years ago, on a visit to Yellowstone National Park, I found a pair of Sandhill Cranes with two chicks in tow at the Floating Island overlook. Sandhill have nested at that location in the past, but I hadn’t seen Sandhill there for years and returned on several occasions to see how they were doing. One afternoon, returning from the Lamar Valley, I noticed a Grizzly Bear walking briskly up a trail that would take him right behind the pond where the Sandhill had nested.

I hurried anxiously to the small turnout that looks down on the Floating Island pond and parked my car. Both chicks and adults were up and about, and as the bear neared, he began to leave the trail he had been on and walk towards the pond. The agitated cranes saw him immediately and reacted. One adult (the female?), collected the chicks and moved them aside while the other (the male?) sprinted straight towards the grizzly. Spotting him, the grizzly turned towards the adult and away from the area where the mother had ushered the chicks. As soon as he knew that he had attracted the bear’s attention, the crane turned around and ran in the opposite direction, the grizzly in hot pursuit. When he leapt into flight, the daunted grizzly gave up his pursuit, headed back to the path, and left the area. At which time, the crane returned to his mate and chicks.

Think Sandhill Cranes survived for 2.5 million years just because they’re tall and handsome?

If you’d like to see Sandhill Cranes for yourself, you’ll find numerous state preserves and National Wildlife Refuges that offer opportunities to see them in their natural habitat. The birds congregate (before and after migration) at a variety of places, including two well-known locations: Nebraska’s Platte River valley, where “more than 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes converge” each spring (as many as 500,000 cranes) before migrating north; and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Socorro, New Mexico, where more than 10,000 Greater and Lesser Sandhill Crane spend the winter. But you should also check with local Audubon chapters and National Wildlife Refuges for information about other prime Sandhill Crane locations near you.

If you’d like to learn more about this magnificent creature of ancient lineage, visit any of the following sites:

The Aububon Society
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The International Crane Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
National Geographic
The National Wildlife Federation
Sandhill Crane [Wikipedia]