ELi ON EARTH: Sandhill Cranes Cruise East Lansing

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Monday, August 17, 2015, 12:52 am
Aron Sousa

Photo of sandhill crane by Tom Hodgson for the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audobon Sanctuary near Jackson, MI.

ELi does not allow editorializing, so, reader, when I tell you that sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are magnificent, I am simply being descriptive., This summer and fall resident of East Lansing is a beautiful, extravagant, fancy-dancing bird.

Over the summer and into October and November in East Lansing, sandhill cranes can be seen in the skies, fields and wetlands in and around the city. Sandhills are big birds, standing 3-4 feet tall with a 6-7-foot wingspan. And they have a call that sounds right out of the age of dinosaurs.

Evolutionarily, sandhills are very old birds. Fossil remains in Nebraska dating back 9-10 million years show essentially the same anatomy as modern sandills. There is a good deal of size variation in the current sub-species of sandhill cranes, and a similar size variation in the fossil record makes it hard to prove our sandhills are essentially the same as their ancestors of 10 million years ago.

Nonetheless, sandhills have one of the oldest fossil records of any modern bird. The fossils of crane-like relatives of sandhills stretch back 65 million years, to the end of the dinosaur-laden Cretaceous period. It is not hard to think that the sounds of our sandhills would be similar to those of 10 or even 65 million years ago.

The loud rattle call of sandhills is unmistakable and can be heard for miles. (My wife does a good imitation, although one time her call, made on a canoe trip along the Looking Glass River, elicited in response lowing from a cow.) The sandhill can make this call because its windpipe (trachea) doubles back on itself and is about twice as long as the length of its neck. The windpipes of most birds stretch from their beaks to their lungs, but the windpipes of sandhills take a detour down to the breastbone and back up to the lung. This extra-long path allows the sandhill to make its incredibly loud, resonant sound. Other crane-like birds have extra-long windpipes and big trumpeting calls (like swans), but the sandhill has taken this adaption to the extreme.

East Lansing is near the southern end of the sandhill’s summer migration, and East Lansing birds begin to flock and converge in farm fields and wetlands in October and November before flying south to Florida for the winter. The Haehnle Santuary near Jackson is a stop-over for as many as 8,000 of the 20,000 Michigan sandhills.

Sandhills tend to forage in fields and wetlands, eating insects and plants. MSU ornithologist, Dr. Catherine Lindell tells ELi, “Sandhills can damage crops, particularly when they are in large groups. I regularly see sandhills in agricultural areas surrounding Lansing and recently saw them in blueberry fields in the western part of the state. They can be pesky but they sure are beautiful.”

Farmers can get permits to kill sandhills if they become a nuisance, but there is no sandhill hunting season in Michigan. In the 1930’s, sandhills were nearly hunted out of Michigan and indeed out of extinction, but they have made a steady comeback, especially in the last thirty years.

For much of this summer, there have been a few in the MSU fields across Hagadorn Road from Red Haven. In the skies, sandhills usually fly in flocks, and if you know how they look when flying, it is possible to distinguish them from other large, long-necked East Lansing birds. Sandhills fly with their neck straight out in front and their legs straight out in back, while herons fold their neck up in front (their legs do stick out to the back) and geese fly with their necks extended but their (short) legs tucked up next to their bodies.

Keep your eyes open for these birds in the air and in fields as corn is harvested. You won’t need to keep your ears open for their call. The sandhills will let you know if they want to be heard.


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