Squawnkers: Sandhill Cranes and Birding

Posted on September 13, 2018

by Heidi Y

The most beautiful bird in this part of the world is the Sandhill Crane. Period. End of discussion. My opinion of course. But, no contest. Right here in our backyard, Southeast Michigan. But, I didn’t know we had cranes here in this part of the country, you say? Well, we do. Actually, until my husband and I found a lake cottage, we didn’t either.

Sandhill cranes are magnificent. They stand almost as tall as I do. If you saw me, you would smile. They have long beaks for digging in the soil, looking for painted turtle and snapping turtle eggs. (‘Snappers.’ Snapping turtles. That’s another blog post. Scary.) Worms, snakes, berries, seeds of every kind are on the menu. They are omnivores.

We have Sandhill cranes at our cottage in Michigan – walking, talking, yes, I mean that, breathing dinosaurs. Again, my opinion, but they look and act like how I imagine a dinosaur must have moved and communicated 120 million years ago. They look at you with piercing orange-yellow eyes, as if they are asking you, “What’s up, Doc?” And they stare and stare. Sometimes they will slowly move away, but not before sizing you up and down. It is an eerie kind of watching, at things around them that they do. Then if you don’t move too fast, or talk too loudly, they just ignore you. Even our hunting dog, who doesn’t hunt (that’s another blog post to come), could care less about the Sandhill Cranes, or they about her. They just ignore all of us when we are observing them. (Our dog will go right after a Canadian Goose in a second, but Cranes, nothing. Weird. Or she senses that Dino-thing, too.)

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill and whooping cranes : ancient voices over America's wetlands / Paul A. Johnsgard
A chorus of cranes : the cranes of North America and the world / Paul A. Johnsgard ; with photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen ; drawings and maps by P.A. Johnsgard
Sandhill Cranes written and photographed by Lynn M. Stone
Cranes: A Natural History by Janice Hughes

“Crane species hold an important place in cultures around the globe. Cranes, including Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis), feature prominently in North American art, where their penetrating calls and elaborate dances have found a place in the fabrics and painting and dance of Native Americans and our contemporary culture.” ~ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Sandhill Cranes are large birds with long necks and legs. They are about 4 feet tall, having wing spans of about 6.5 feet. They are heavy-bodied and grayish all over, with a white cheek and a bright red bald crown. Sandhill cranes can be identified in flight by the way the hold their neck (straight out) and the way they beat their wings. Their wings beat slowly downward, and then quickly flick upward.” ~ Biokids

Sandhill Cranes are wonderful to see landing and taking off, watching them from the ground. When they take off, it only takes 1-3 wing flaps downward, and they have lift. They make a straight line of their bodies, and slowly ascend into the sky. Landing, they glide in circles a lot of times which makes it look as if they are following some ethereal vortex which only they can see. It is a dance in mid-air.

Thousands of Cranes Take Flight in One of Earth’s Last Great Migrations | Nat Geo Wild

And speaking of dancing …

Apparently, there are a few versions of the mating ritual dance of the Sandhill Cranes, but I don’t know which is what. I just watch and giggle. There is hopping, and neck twisting; flapping of those wings, and clacking of beaks. It helps the mating pair bond, and over the span of about 35 years in the wild, that is a long time to stay connected. It works like that in any marriage. At least in mine. Dancing is a requirement for any Sandhill Crane, and any human in my household. My husband and I regularly dance back into each other’s good graces, too. Some do date nights, well, this couple and the Sandhill Cranes do dance nights.

… And then there is the singing … well, it’s called “squawnking.” That’s what my husband and I call it. If you go onto YouTube and type in “Sandhill Cranes calling” you will understand what I mean. It’s not really singing, not really calling. It’s definitely a cross between a really enraged mother-in-law’s pronouncements about what her beloved son needs from you, and your reaction to those pronouncements after you hang up the phone when the call is done. (I don’t know this personally you understand, this is a purely hypothetical scenario.) But, once you hear it from the “Squawnkers” themselves, they transform it into a beautiful cacophony of sounds, guttural and lyrical, mixed in with pure energy. You can hear the vibrations and sounds for a couple of miles.

Birding and the Fall Migration

Ohio Lake Erie birding trail guidebook / Ohio Division of Wildlife
Midwestern birds : [backyard guide : watching - feeding - landscaping - nurturing] / Bill Thompson III
Migration Nation: Animals on the go from Coast to Coast
BirdNote : chirps, quirks, and stories of 100 birds from the popular public radio show / edited by Ellen Blackstone ; illustrated by Emily Poole

“There are six migratory populations: Eastern Flyway (ours here in the area), Mid-Continent, Rocky Mountain, Lower Colorado River, Central Valley, and Pacific Flyway breeding from the northeastern United States through central Canada to Alaska and eastern Siberia.” ~ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

At our cottage we have the songbird Warblers, the raptors (Bald Eagles, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcons), and the largest of all, the Sandhill Cranes. The songbirds begin flying out for warmer climes this time of the year, but the “Squawnkers” stay to gather in ever increasing flocks through the end of October into the beginning of November. They stuff themselves on the leftover corn, alfalfa and wheat fields for the long journey south which makeup much of the Southern part of Michigan. Most of the Sandhill Cranes will travel to Florida or Texas from this part of the United States, so the more in a classic “V” formation, the better the odds for all individuals to make the long flight for sun and surf.

The hallmarks of the Sandhill Crane are sound and movement. They strut and glide, screech and jump. Nothing prepares you for the actual experience of observation. There is a reason Birders are such good observers, because they don’t want to startle and scare a bird away. But I think if you are watching a Sandhill Crane, you need to be a great observer because they are watching you in turn. Those eyes take you in, and create a place for you in their sphere. The magical sphere of beauty right here in our area, a trumpeting, way too tall for their own good, “Squawnkers” place. We are so fortunate. Get out there folks, and experience your local Sandhill Crane population today.

Learn More About Sandhill Cranes

BioKids Inquiry of Diverse Species

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon

National Audubon Society

National Geographic

ODNR Division of Wildlife

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