Perhaps like me you have heard those sounds from overhead during the spring and fall bird migrations and looked skyward to see what was causing it. But nothing was up there! But then it continued. Eventually a flock of birds was spotted up there. Way up there! And they could seemingly disappear and reappear depending on the lighting. If they happened to be flying a little lower, you would have noticed that they were large birds with a long neck and legs sticking out behind. They are sandhill cranes.
Sandhill cranes, of course are the lesser-known cousin of the whooping crane. They are a little smaller than the whooping crane, with a wingspan of around six and a half feet. They are gray with a rusty tinge on the upper body, and a prominent red crown or forehead.
As you might expect, sandhill cranes are birds of the marshes where they feed on a variety of animals and plant material. Their diet includes a variety of invertebrates such as worms, snails, insects, as well as small vertebrates such as frogs. They also consume seeds, berries, tubers, and other plant material.
Maps of their breeding range often cover much of Canada and perhaps portions of the states to the east and west of us. So, we mostly see them during their spring and fall migrations. During the fall migration they can occasionally be observed feeding in grain fields, although at a distance, the casual observer may dismiss them as geese.
Historically however, sandhill cranes had a larger breeding range which included North Dakota. Robert Stewart in his book Breeding Birds of North Dakota from 1975 shows records of both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes nesting in the state. Sandhill cranes nest in large, isolated sloughs supporting cattails, bulrushes, and grasses. Stewart noted observations of nests, eggs, young, or adults present during the breeding season had been documented in several locations north and east of the Missouri River from the 1840’s to the 1970’s. They were absent from the state for a while after that, but over the past few years breeding pairs have been observed in at least one of our National Wildlife Refuges and perhaps other areas as well. So perhaps we will soon hear the call of the sandhill cranes during the summer months as well.