I was reminded again why I love where I live. Waking up one early morning recently, bedroom windows open, I heard the distant rattling calls of two sandhill cranes emanating from Lake Assawa.

I was reminded again why I love where I live. Waking up one early morning recently, bedroom windows open, I heard the distant rattling calls of two sandhill cranes emanating from Lake Assawa. I could tell that the birds were airborne and were flying northerly and toward my house.

    As I laid in bed listening to their prehistoric-like vocalizations echoing across the lake and woodland—their voices growing louder with each passing second—they soon passed directly overhead. Indeed, so loud were their chortling cries that the reverberations of the sounds seemed to fill me to the core.

    Sandhill cranes belong to the avian order Gruiformes, the same order that rails and coots belong to.  And of cranes, no other crane is as abundant worldwide as the sandhill crane is.  Their population is estimated at over 500,000.  To compare, the entire population of the larger and related whooping crane of North America is roughly 600 individual birds.   Furthermore, there are six recognized sub-species of sandhill crane.  Here in Minnesota we enjoy the company of Greater sandhill cranes.  Others subspecies are the Lesser, Canadian, Florida, Mississippi, and Cuban sandhill cranes.

    I’ll never forget the first time I observed this prehistoric looking bird.  Several of the birds were gathered on a field near our dairy farm in Ottertail County.  From the distance I couldn’t believe I was looking at birds.  They seemed much too large.  Indeed, many people frequently mistake sandhill cranes for animals such as deer. Perhaps this is due in large part to, well, their largeness.  Or, maybe it’s the gray color of their plumage, or both.  But whatever the similarities to other creatures may be, the voice puts the sandhill crane into a league of their own.

    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 everywhere with sandhill cranes.  

    Sandhill cranes are large birds.  With a wingspan of over six feet and a body length exceeding 45 inches, it’s no wonder people mistake these birds for something else.  When standing erect, sandhill cranes can be as tall as four feet from head to toe.  Their long legs and long necks give them an almost dinosaurian appearance.  They can reach weights of over ten pounds.

    Both genders have a red crown, 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 goose-like, “V” formations with their long legs held rigidly behind their bodies, necks stretched out, and calling as they fly.

    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.  The two birds jump up and down facing each other, with wings extended, over and over again.  The male will often grasp and toss into the air vegetation like grasses or stems while leaping upwards.  

    The voice of the sandhill crane has been variously described.  Aldo Leopold, from A Sand County Almanac, 1949, wrote in part, of “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.”  In his usual noteworthy and eloquent way, Mr. Leopold accurately expressed the calls of cranes.  Field guides explain it in a less colorful way, but often make reference to the rattling nature and rolling bugle-like quality of the call and, often, qualify the descriptions with much “variability” or “variation.”  

    However the voice is portrayed, it is on par with that of wolf howls, the cacophony of goose talk, and the wails of loons as quintessential wildness.
Sandhill cranes and other species of cranes the world over, has inspired legend, art, and adoration amongst we human admirers.  As summer wanes and migration commences, sandhill cranes will gather in ever-growing flocks throughout their migratory corridors here in northwestern Minnesota.

    Lucky we are that these magnificent birds are here to observe and listen to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

    Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at bklemek@yahoo.com.