Every year, I am part of a volunteer group, exploring the wetlands and fields in Lake County, Illinois. In the pre-dawn hours, our eyes scan for a hint of movement; our ears listen for a faint bugling sound. Our mission, to spot the arrival of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), a sign that heralds spring.
These large elegant birds migrate through Lake County every year and an increasing number are deciding to nest here as well. We know this thanks to the early rising volunteers who help with the Annual Midwest Crane Count held in spring. This year, some of the first sandhill cranes spotted returning to Lake County, Illinois were seen mid-March at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve.
Although this species stands roughly 3 1/2 feet tall and has extremely long legs and beak, the birds are often tough to spot—camouflaged by the wetland and prairie backdrops. These habitats set the stage for spring courtship rituals that, like a Broadway production, come complete with costumes, song and even dance.
Prior to breeding, mated pairs begin their elaborate courting by painting their feathers with mud, which helps them hide from predators. Following the painting, the two cranes leap and fall in dance-like movements accompanied by a loud duet of unison calls.
After this song and dance, the couple builds a large wetland nest up to 5 feet in diameter made of grasses and other vegetation. The nest rises high above the water, offering the parents a platform to spot predators while surrounded by a protective moat.
The female typically lays two to three eggs, but usually only one chick survives. That’s because siblings aggressively battle each other for food, with the dominant individual emerging. However, in years when their food supply—anything from plants to insects to small mammals—is plentiful, both chicks are more likely to survive. Once the chicks are four to five years old they are ready to start families of their own.
Sandhill cranes have a storied history in our area. Fossils found in North America that date back 10 million years record it as the oldest known bird species still alive today. Until the late 1800s when hunting and habitat loss extirpated both species from the area, they ruled the skies along with the now extinct passenger pigeon. Sadly, the passenger pigeon’s story ended in 1914 when the last bird died in a zoo, extinguishing the species completely. Fortunately, with help from hunting regulations and habitat protection and restoration, sandhill cranes returned to the area in the late 1970s. Although back, they were still at risk in 1989 when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) placed them on the Endangered Species List.
Numbers today are improving. While the 1996 Crane Count spotted only 23 cranes, the population quadrupled in more recent years. In 1999 the IDNR upgraded their status to threatened. This comeback story would not have been possible if it had not been for people working to help the cranes by protecting and restoring habitat as well as monitoring their progress. This year there is a reminder that not all species have a bright future like the sandhill cranes’. The centennial anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is an opportunity to explore the connections between humans and the natural world, to face current behaviors threatening wildlife, and to inspire people to become more involved in building sustainable relationships with our world.
For opportunities to explore these connections check out the Lake County Forest Preserves’ free Earth Week programs in honor of Earth Day 2014 on April 22. Or consider becoming a volunteer with the citizen-based Crane Count. Also check Horizons magazine for programs that explore how caring leads to conservation.