I am part of a volunteer group for the Annual Midwest Crane Count, monitoring the wetlands and fields in Lake County, Illinois each year for sandhill cranes. In the pre-dawn hours, our eyes scan for any hint of movement. Our ears listen for a bugling sound. Our mission: Determine the abundance and distribution of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) in the Upper-Midwest United States.
The arrival of these large elegant birds in Lake County is a harbinger of spring. More migrate through this region 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 each spring. This year, some of the first sandhill cranes returning to Lake County, Illinois were spotted in mid-March at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve.
Although this species stands roughly three and a half feet tall and has an extremely long beak and legs, these birds are often tough to spot—camouflaged by the surrounding wetlands and prairies. 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 nest up to five feet in diameter made of grasses and other vegetation. The nest rises high above the water in a wetland, 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 is because siblings aggressively battle each other for food, leaving only the dominant individual. 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 juveniles 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 date back 10 million years, recording these cranes as the oldest known bird species alive today. They ruled the skies along with the now extinct passenger pigeon until the late 1800s, when hunting and habitat loss extirpated both species from this region. Sadly, the passenger pigeon’s story ended in 1914 when the last bird died in a zoo, extinguishing the species completely. Fortunately, hunting regulations, habitat protection and restoration helped sandhill cranes return to this area in the late 1970s. Although, they were still at risk in 1989 when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) placed them on the Endangered Species List.
Today crane numbers are increasing. While the 1996 Crane Count recorded only 23 sandhill cranes, the population has 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 marks a reminder that not all species have success stories like the sandhill crane. The centennial anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is an opportunity to explore 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 within 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. Consider becoming a volunteer with the citizen-based Crane Count. Or, follow the Lake County Forest Preserves’ newsletter Horizons for programs that explore how caring leads to conservation.