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Printed October 1, 2019

‘Singing River’ prepared to welcome the Sandhill Crane

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

Living along the lower San Bernard River, we are usually lucky enough to witness the annual arrival and visit of the Lesser Sandhill Crane this time of year.

They come in great numbers to winter in the area’s accommodations of large freshwater marshes, prairie ponds, prairies and grain fields and to partake of the local winter cuisine of mostly plant matter (they love all kinds of grain), insects, aquatic invertebrates, reptiles or amphibians, small mammals and fish. The San Bernard provides a four-star habitat for these winter visitors.

Before Roy and I spent any time with Tommy and Dona Worrell on the Poole Ranch, I had often heard a bird call I could never identify. But one afternoon years ago now, we were having a glass of iced tea on the porch, and I heard the sound.
“Do you know what bird makes this sound?” I asked.

Dona said it was from a Sandhill Crane and that a family of them always returned each year. She used to love waking up to their calls.

Things have changed since then – we’ve had two hurricanes alter the habitat; Dona has passed away; and parts of the ranch have been sold. But I still drive by the ranch in the winter, and I still see the little Sandhill Crane family return each year. I am still thrilled when I hear their calls.

The Sandhill Crane is a large crane in North America, and their name refers to their preferred habitat, such as the Platte River on the edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills, where yearly up to 450,000 cranes migrate through. The adult bird’s plumage is mostly gray with some patches, especially on the back and wings, where there is stained rust or brown from repeated contact with the mud containing iron oxide in the marshes and their habit of preening with vegetation.

They have a red forehead, white cheeks and long, dark, sharp-pointed beaks. Their wingspan can be up to 7 feet – all the better to soar and catch the thermals to obtain lift. With this wingspan, they can stay aloft for many hours with little exertion of flapping their wings as they migrate. The sexes look the same.

The Sandhill Crane is similar in size to the endangered Whooping Crane, which is mostly white with a red head, but the Sandhill falls into the “least concern” category of conservation status.

The Sandhill Crane is, however, much more successful in its breeding habits than the endangered Whooping Crane, which is federally protected from hunters with stiff penalties should one be confused for the other.

In fact, a crane fossil structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane found in Nebraska is 10 million years old - which would make it the oldest-known bird species still surviving. Their breeding habitat is marshes and bogs in central and northern Canada, Alaska and part of the midwestern and southeastern United States. They nest in marsh vegetation or on the ground close to water and generally lay two eggs on a pile of vegetation. In many western states, including Texas, the Sandhill Crane is hunted during waterfowl season, and it is considered a meat source.

If we get to know our wintering guests better, we will find some other interesting facts:

• Cranes mate for life, and both parents feed the young. They are noted for their elaborate courtship displays. Two displays are used to form mating pairs while three other displays occur only between mates and serve to maintain the pair bond.

• The Sandhill Crane does not breed until it is two to seven years old, and the average generation’s time is 12.5 years.

• The Sandhill Crane can live up to 25 years in the wild and has been known to live twice that long in captivity.

• Mated pairs stay together year-round and migrate south as a group with their offspring.

• A young Sandhill Crane is not called a “chick,” but rather, a “colt.”

• A group of Sandhill Cranes share many collective nouns, including a “construction,” “dance,” “sedge,” “siege,” or “swoop” of cranes.

No matter what you call them, the Sandhill Cranes gather up their families and choose to winter along the San Bernard River each winter.

So, if you look, you may catch a glimpse of them dining in the marshes and grain fields. And, if you are lucky to live out in the county, you may hear their evening family conversations.

Well, our San Bernard, the “Singing River,” has prepared winter accommodations for the “dance” of cranes, and the door of hospitality is open wide.

May these forces of nature make beautiful music together this winter.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)