Back again is the colorful Sandhill crane

A pair of Canadian geese few over our house Sunday, less than a hundred feet up and honking their way to whatever niche they had in mind to visit.

Their honking may be one of the true sounds of the North Country, but not the loudest. The loudest I ever heard was while camping at Kingston Lake near Grand Marais and was serenaded to bed and awakened at dawn by the seemingly endless shrill babble of a large colony of Greater Sandhill Cranes gathered at a small lake nearby. That, my friends, is loud!

Get ready for some more of it as this is the time when these native cranes return to our state, as early as February in the southern portions of the Lower Peninsula, and in March in our North Country.

Unlike the large gatherings of staging cranes that occur each fall, cranes are rather solitary and generally arrive in pairs – usually mated birds that stay bonded all their lives. A few younger cranes of the parent birds may arrive with them but they disperse to seek their own mates and territory shortly after.

For those unfamiliar with the species, they are one of only two native cranes in the US. The larger Whooping Crane, an endangered species is barely hanging on in a few locations. The Sandhill Crane was also in trouble and about extirpated fr0m Michigan until recent decades when they began to stage a big come back and are now enjoying healthy populations in the state.

The Sandhill Crane is described this way: Cranes are Michigan’s largest birds, tall standing birds with a heavy body, long neck and long legs. Standing four to five feet high and possessing a wing span of six to seven feet, Sandhill Cranes are Michigan’s largest bird. Long, skinny legs and neck give a false impression of size; the males weigh an average of about 12 pounds and the females around 9-1/2 pounds. Except for this size difference, both sexes look alike.

Adults are marked with a red patch on top of their heads. After molting their feathers in late summer, Sandhills are gray except for white cheeks and a bare reddish forehead. Bustle-like feathers further add to a distinctive appearance.

The brightness of the red in the bald forehead varies depending on behavioral stimulation which controls skin capillaries by restricting or relaxing blood flow. A brighter red forehead is associated with stressful stimuli; a less conspicuous forehead signals submission.

Immature Sandhills appear similar to adults except that they are brown in color and the forehead remains feathered until early winter.

Not far from Bitely in Newaygo County is the Walkenshaw Wetlands, a place where efforts to bring the crane back from nearly extirpated populations in Michigan was under taken under the leadership of Dr. Lawrence Harvey Walkenshaw.

At the Walkinshaw Wetlands, a 4,500-acre preserve within the Huron-Manistee National Forest, studies and habitat efforts to restore healthy populations were conducted under the leadership of this dentist-turned-ornithologist whose passion for the cranes and also the Kirtland’s Warbler attracted others to work to save other endangered or threatened species.

In 1931, a survey found only 17 crane pairs left in southern Michigan. By 1947 there were still only 27 known pairs in Lower Michigan and by 1950 crane numbers increased to about 50

pairs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sandhill numbers rose dramatically. A two year survey in 1986-87 funded by the Non-game Wildlife Fund found 630 pairs in the Lower Peninsula and another 175 pairs in the Upper Peninsula. Since cranes do not pair until they are three years old, a rapidly expanding population such as this will include a high number of immature, non-paired birds. Also, many pairs probably went unrecorded, especially in the Upper Peninsula. It is estimated that there are now over 8,000 Sandhill Cranes in Michigan.

Now, as spring advances in the North Country, the Sandhills are arriving back and ready to make their island nests within the wetlands of our region. Thanks to those like the late Dr. Walkenshaw, their efforts mean even more cranes with each passing season to add their crazed calls to the voices of the wild.