OUT: Sandhill cranes raise flock of questions

The only sure way to differentiate crane sexes, is their calling behavior. Males, the crane on the left in the photo below, extend their heads near vertical and “karoo” loudly while females move their heads up and down to 45 degrees and make two quick cluck-like calls for every call made by the male. This synchronized duet is thought to be how a mated pair reinforces their life-long bond and also to threaten predators or intruding cranes.

Well-bundled crane watchers, right, get up hours before sunrise to wait for fly-out, when the cranes leave their marshland roosting areas en masse and fly to nearby fields to feed for the day.

Cranes occasionally dance, inset right, sometimes during courtship and sometimes apparently just of the fun of it. This crane leaped, flapped its wings and twirled for a few minutes, perhaps simply enjoying being alive on a spring day in southern New Mexico.

TWO MEMBERS of this family group of cranes, inset left, are demonstrating classic pre-flight behavior by leaning at 45 degrees. It’s thought the behavior is a way of telling other cranes that, “Hey, I’m ready to go, how about you?”

BOSQUE DEL APACHE N.W.R. — The “Why?” and “How?” questions.

Why do sandhill cranes dance? How do they keep their feet warm? Why do males and females lift their heads and voices in a synchronized duet? How do they know when to migrate?

Paul Tebbel and Keanna Leonard, certainly two of the nation’s leading experts on sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), field these queries repeatedly during their crane behavior seminars at the annual Festival of the Cranes.

The festival — this year’s was the 21st — is held the week prior to Thanksgiving at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande in south-central New Mexico.

The early morning crane behavior classes are quite popular, thanks largely to the personal approach of Tebbel and Leonard, education director at the Audubon Society’s Rowe
Sanctuary on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska. More than half a million cranes funnel past the sanctuary on twice-yearly migrations.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Tebbel assures the still-sleepy riders on the 5:30 a.m. bus ride across the dark refuge. We’re on the way to fly out, the moment when cranes leave their night roosting areas to feed in nearby fields.

“But let me assure you, I don’t have all the answers. We simply don’t know everything about cranes,” he said. “Plus, they’re birds, and they do what birds do.”

It’s silent when we get the pond, but that won’t last long. The voice of a male sandhill crane can carry more than a mile, so imagine the ruckus in mid-winter when more than 15,000 sandhill cranes (along with tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds) congregate along the Rio Grande.

Some cranes migrate as far as Siberia, others spend their summers in Alaska, Canada and the Yukon. Idaho is a popular destination, and for more than 30 years a few pairs have been raising their young in northern Colorado.

Sandhill cranes stand 3 to 4 feet tall, weigh up to 12 pounds and can have a 7-foot wingspan. They are long-lived. Number A27, identified by his leg band, was banded as a chick in Aug. 1969 and last seen at Bosque on March 3, 2003, 33 years later.

The first cranes begin their journey north in mid-February, and by late March the refuge is silent again and seems quite lonely. Residents and workers find themselves looking upward, waiting to hear the voices from the sky.


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