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About the cover

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

Cranes

Page: 2


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.

Even with its current abundance, the Sandhill Crane — an icon of America's wildlife heritage — still may face an uncertain future.

 

 

The 22nd annual Festival of the Cranes, sponsored by the City of Socorro and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, will celebrate the return of the cranes, Nov. 17-22. More than 100 lectures, workshops, tours, hikes and hands-on activities are planned. Expert volunteers will be on hand at the observation decks around the Bosque tour loops to assist visitors with questions and to share their birding knowledge and scopes. You can experience the memorable Fly-Out in the morning and the Fly-In in the evening on your own or by joining a tour. Tours include areas not commonly available during the year. Lectures are offered on a variety of wildlife-related subjects; most are at the Macey Center in Socorro. Workshops in photography, bird identification and wildlife painting will be conducted in the field or at special facilities. On Saturday and most of Sunday, Nov. 21-22, the main Promenade at the Refuge will be filled with exhibits and demonstrations.

Advance registration for tours and workshops is advised. Contact: Festival of the Cranes, PO Box 340, San Antonio, NM 87832, 835-2077 or 838-2120. For more information and complete schedule, see www.friendsofthebosque.org/crane

The 17th Annual Wings Over Willcox will be held Jan. 13-17, 2010. For information, write 1500 N. Circle I Road, Willcox, AZ 85643, call (800) 200-2272, or see www.wingsoverwillcox.com


For information on the International Crane Foundation, write E-11376 Shady Lane Road, PO Box 447, Baraboo, WI 53913, call (608) 356-9462, or visit www.savingcranes.org

 

 

 

Jay W. Sharp is a Las Cruces author who is a regular contributor
to DesertUSA, an Internet magazine, and who is the author of Texas Unexplained.






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