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Published on October 19, 2021

Sandhill cranes wintering here

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

Living along the lower San Bernard River, you may be 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 4-star habitat for these winter visitors.

The Sandhill Crane is a large crane in North America, and his name refers to his preferred habitat (like 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, 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 falls in the “least concern” of Conservation Status.

The Sandhill Crane is, however, much more successful in its breeding habits than the Whooping Crane.

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 for its meat.

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 Crane gathers up their families and choose to winter along the San Bernard River each winter. But like other hotel accommodations along this section of Texas coast, Hurricane Nicholas has left his messy calling card. That may reduce the number of our annual Sandhill Crane visitors.

But 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.

If you haven’t been privy to their evening talk, go to this website:

ttp://identify.whatbird.com/obj/51/_/Sandhill_Crane.aspx - voice.

Well, the “Singing River” has prepared the 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.

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