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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

Fellow Travelers

Flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes may fly as much as 150 miles in a day. November brings them to New Mexico.

Story and photo by Jay W. Sharp



In the stillness of sunrise or sunset, you can often hear their call — a long, bugling, rattling garoooooah, repeated time and again — well before you see them. When they do finally appear, silhouetted against the early morning or the evening sky, they evoke a sense of the primal. They have, after all, performed their noisy daily rituals over the shallow wetlands of North America for at least two and a half million years, perhaps 700 millennia before most of our other current species ever took flight.

cranes
Greater Sandhill Cranes feeding, with Snow Geese,
in a field near the Bosque del Apache NWR.

The Sandhill Crane, with three migratory and three non-migratory subspecies, has a total estimated population of half a million, making it the most abundant crane in the world. It is one of North America's three species of cranes. (The other two are the Whooping Crane, a protected species that struggles for survival, and the Common Crane, a western Asian and northern European native that makes only rare, accidental appearances in North America.)

Collectively, the three migratory subspecies — the Greater, Lesser and Canadian Sandhill Cranes — occupy a breeding range that extends from the northeastern corner of Siberia across much of Canada and parts of the northern United States. They occupy a winter range that spans much of the southern United States and parts of northern Mexico. The three non-migratory subspecies — the Mississippi, Florida and Cuban Sandhill Cranes — breed and winter in year-round ranges in the southeastern United States and in Cuba.

According to the US Geological Survey, the Greater Sandhill Crane — the best known of the subspecies in the Southwest — breeds in south-central Canada and in the northwestern quarter of the United States. The Greater Sandhill Crane's Rocky Mountain population, which breeds in western Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, winters in the Rio Grande Valley of southern New Mexico and scattered wetlands in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and north-central Mexico.

It is these birds that give rise to the celebratory November Festival of the Cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico and the January Wings over Willcox at the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area in southeastern Arizona. (The Arizona concentration of Greater Sandhill Cranes is one of the largest in the Southwest, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.)



Distinctive Features

Like its subspecies kin, the Greater Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis tabida) has a fairly heavy body, a long neck, a stiletto-billed head, and stilt-like legs. Larger than its brethren, however, it stands some four feet tall. It measures nearly four feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail. It has a wingspan of six to seven feet and weighs 10 to 15 pounds. The Greater Sandhill Crane ranks among the larger birds of the world.

In full adult plumage, the bird has an overall grayish body with whitish throat and cheeks, a distinctive unfeathered red cap, and dark gray bill and legs. If it has preened iron-rich soil into its feathers, it may have taken on temporary tinges of cinnamon to rufous color.

Foraging for food in shallow wetlands or open fields, the bird walks with a kind of stately elegance. It flies with a rapid upstroke and a slow downstroke of its wings, often as part of a linear or a v-shaped formation. Unlike herons and egrets, which fly with their necks folded in an S-shape, the crane flies with its neck extended.



Migration

The Greater Sandhill Crane grows restless — leaping, flapping, stretching — in its breeding ranges as the cooler temperatures of fall begin exacting a toll on the bird's food sources. Parent birds urge their young to perfect the skills of flight. Come October, one sunlit morning soon after dawn, the birds rise in flocks, in an orchestrated ascent, and head noisily southward. The Rocky Mountain population gathers in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley in a seasonal convention before heading south to their winter ranges.

The birds grow restless again when rising temperatures of late winter hold out the promise of the renewal of the species. Again they rise in flocks on a sunlit morning soon after dawn. They now head northward, retracing fall routes, with the Rocky Mountain population again pausing at the San Luis Valley staging area, during the return to the breeding areas.

During migratory flights, the Greater Sandhill Crane may fly as much as 150 miles in a day, at altitudes as high as 11,000 to 12,000 feet, according to authorities T.C. Tacha, S.A. Nesbitt and P.A. Vohs, writing for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While they usually fly during daylight hours, they sometimes fly into the night.



Habitat and Diet

In their breeding range, the Rocky Mountain population of Greater Sandhill Cranes usually seeks out "isolated, well watered river valleys, marshes and meadows at elevations above 1.5 km [about 5,000 feet]," write Tacha, Nesbitt and Vohs. The birds build their nests in the lushness of the wetter meadows or along the edges of marshes. Generalists in their diet, the birds take delight in dining in farmers' nearby fields, but they also, says the International Crane Foundation, "feed on plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates (e.g. mice and snakes), and invertebrates such as insects or worms," both in the water and on land.

In their winter range in New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico, the birds make their homes in riverine wetlands such as the Bosque del Apache and in seasonal desert ponding areas such as those of the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area. Gregarious birds, especially in their winter ranges, they feed not only with other Greater Sandhills, but also with other species such as Snow Geese, on seeds in nearby fields and pasturelands as well as on the plants, small vertebrates and invertebrates of the wetlands.



Life Cycle

When the lengthening days of late winter and early spring cause the Greater Sandhill Crane's hormones to stir, the bird yields to an irresistible urge to dance and sing, especially at its migratory staging areas. In a courtship dance as carefully choreographed as a minuet in an 18th century royal French ballroom, the male and female — conversational and coy — bow, bob, weave, toss and jump, all while spreading their six- to seven-foot wings. At the same time, they croon a litany of long-proven Greater Sandhill Crane love songs. Clearly, it all works. The birds mate for life.

At the breeding range, a couple selects a nest site, typically in an isolated area at the surface of shallow water or on the banks of a marshland. The two gather nearby plant materials to build a low nest mound several feet across. The female arranges the material to suit her domestic tastes. If she is a fussy housekeeper, she may rearrange and enlarge her nest continually during incubation.

Over two to three days, says JonMorrison, writing for the Bosque del Apache website, the female lays two buff- to olive-colored eggs with brown or lilac spots. With the careful attendance of their mother, the chicks hatch, their eyes open, within about a month. Swaddled in tawny brown, they find their legs within a day, and they leave the nest to run after — or even swim after — their parents, both of whom will feed and nurture them during the first months of life.

The two "colts," as they are called, often engage in an intense rivalry, especially if food is short, and the stronger may bully its sibling to death. While a colt grows rapidly, it develops its wings slowly, over a period of a couple of months, and it must master the art of flight quickly if it is to join its parents and the flock in the fall migration southward.

A young crane will remain with its parents during migration and into the following spring, when it will take its full independence and its parents will produce a new clutch. After a few years of social mobility, the young bird will bond and reproduce. Typically, a crane will probably live for 5 to 10 years, but with luck, it could live for 20 years or more in the wild.



Life's Hazards

Concurrent with European settlement in the Southwest, the Greater Sandhill Crane's range and its numbers shrank, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Causes included agricultural expansion, habitat loss, hunting and introduced toxins and diseases — hazards that took a greater toll than natural predation, diseases, parasites and storms.

Across North America, the Sandhill Crane's resurgence and its present, relatively abundant population speak to the resilience of this ancient bird as well as to the success of extensive modern conservation measures. The species now benefits, for instance, from ongoing research, population monitoring, key habitat protection and even international treaty, according to the US Geological Survey.

Still, even with modern conservation, the birds confront long-term, ongoing diminishment of natural wetlands, increasing concentration of migrating flocks and the consequent increased exposure to disease and predation. In local areas, the birds have come under increasing risk of fatal collisions with manmade objects such as utility lines, fences and vehicular traffic.



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