Sandhill Cranes Are Due in October
by Ro Wauer
October marks that time of year when Sandhill Cranes are starting to move into their wintering grounds throughout South Texas. It is marvelous to have these large, graceful birds back in our fields and pastures. They will remain all winter, leaving for their northern nesting grounds in late April and early May. But from now until May, one can find hundreds of these birds by driving the roads throughout the region.
Unlike the more famous Whooping Cranes that also winter in South Texas at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and on adjacent coastal flats, Sandhill Cranes prefer drier sites. Their needs are very different. While the Whoopers overwinter only in wet coastal marshes, feeding on marine life and fish, as well as marsh plants, acorns, and grains, Sandhills prefer newly planted or harvested corn, sorghum, and grains. They even range into semiarid areas west to the Big Bend country, southern New Mexico, and south of the border in northern Mexico.
Our returning Sandhill Cranes often possess an odd color pattern, especially when they first arrive: their feathers are rust colored from the iron-rich feeding grounds where they spend their summer months. Normal Sandhill Crane plumage is overall gray with a whitish throat and cheeks, a bare reddish cap in adults, and dark gray legs. Whooping Crane adults are all white except for a black facial pattern and reddish cap. In flight, Whoopers display obvious black-and-white wings, while flying Sandhills are all gray, except for their whitish throat. Both fly with their heads stretched far out and legs trailing behind; Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, also large birds that are sometimes confused with cranes, normally fly with their necks bent so that their head does not extend.
Sandhill Cranes may be one of our most expressive birds. They often can be heard at a considerable distance, talking to one another in their unique calls, a long, rolling, hollow rattle, like “garoooooo.” Whether in flight or feeding in a field, they seem to spend a great deal of their time communicating.
Normally Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and as their mating season draws close, they often can be seen dancing before their mates. Although their mating displays in Texas are less elaborate that the dancing that occurs on their breeding grounds, it is still worthy of our appreciation. Courtship involves loud calling and marvelous dances with head bobbing, bowing and leaping, grass tossing, and running with wings extended.
Sandhills nest far north of South Texas from the Rocky Mountain and northern Great Lakes states to Canada and Alaska. They utilize marshes, grasslands and tundra areas where they construct a bulky nest of sticks, grasses and mosses. Female Sandhills usually two eggs and it is another ten weeks before the youngsters can fly. Families soon congregate in feeding areas, and those same flocks travel together to their wintering grounds in fall.
It is good to see Sandhill Cranes returning to their ancestral wintering grounds in South Texas.