‘Keep an Eye to the Sky’ for Sandhill Cranes

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A sight that has had Connecticut birders rubbing their eyes and quizzically thumbing their field guides over the last few years may have lost a little of its wow factor, but it still leaves them ecstatic.

Once an incredible rarity, sandhill cranes, lanky-legged pterodactyl look-alikes, are here to stay it seems, at least part of the year, even if their numbers are paltry compared to the more than a half million-plus cranes that stage on Nebraska’s Platte River from February to April before heading to nesting grounds stretching north to the tundra.

What’s more, they are not just stopping by, they are beginning to breed. After teasing Connecticut birders with hit-or-miss sightings for about a decade, sandhill cranes were finally documented having young in and around Norfolk’s Aton Forest research preserve in July 2022 and then again last year. And more of the cranes may be breeding around Connecticut but out of sight, says Matthew Bell, a birding guru with Connecticut Audubon Society’s Eco Travel team.

The big birds with a bugle call may have migrated through New England during colonial times but they were never considered an established bird in the region. That is, until a quarter century ago, when they started appearing – and then breeding – in scattered locations north of Connecticut’s border. It was not long before they began to show up here, one even standing in the road and stopping traffic on a June morning in 2020 in Branford. 

Connecticut birders are ecstatic. While a foot shorter than its endangered cousin, the whooping crane, the sandhill crane is nonetheless drop-dead spectacular. Standing four feet high, wings six feet across when spread, its ash-gray plumage is tinged with rust, and forehead crowned by brilliant crimson, its trademark. People lucky enough to watch the mating dance of male and female witness a ballet on stilts, of bobbing heads and expanded wins, punctuated by dramatic leaps into the air. In a moment, they go from gawky to graceful.

The main nesting population of sandhill cranes, which was almost eliminated east of the Mississippi River by the 1930s, has been on the rise, skimming the northern United States reaching into the Arctic, including far eastern Siberia. They winter mostly in the southwestern United States and Mexico. Small populations live year-round in Florida, Mississippi, and Cuba.

In earlier times, sandhill cranes in North America migrated over inland routes, avoiding the Atlantic Coast, but that seems to be changing and, even better, the cranes are not just passing through but setting up house.

The kind of home that sandhill cranes prefer is open, wet country, such as marshes and wet prairies. Although they may sometimes visit marine margins, they breed inland, near fresh water.

Bell said birders might find cranes in Connecticut Audubon’s 700-acre Baffin Sanctuary, adjacent to its Pomfret Center.

In these parts, people unfamiliar with cranes tend to confuse them with the ubiquitous great blue heron, which is of similar size. Telling the difference between the two in flight is easy. The heron keeps its neck in a tight curl while the crane’s long neck is extended, a counterpoint to its long, trailing legs.

The sandhill crane is an indiscriminate feeder, consuming a smorgasbord of vegetable and animal matter, from snails to seeds. Cultivated grains are a preferred food, which has led University of Nebraska researcher Robert M. Zink to theorize that the famed vast assemblage of cranes on a 70-mile stretch the Platte is a relatively recent development. Before the 1950s the cranes were more dispersed, but with the advent of modern mechanized corn harvesting, Zink theorizes, the amount of spilt – read that as “waste” – corn increased to the point that the cranes eat virtually nothing else.

Whatever draws the cranes to the Platte, Connecticut Audubon’s Eco Travel is planning a tour there next year. Details will be announced in April. For now, though, as spring approaches, “keep an eye to the sky,” says Bell, for big birds with a long neck and long legs.