Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Greater Sandhill Cranes--An Intimate View of Family Life

"Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins,
as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through
successive stages of beautiful to values as yet
uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies,
I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
            --Aldo Leopold--A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There            
When Aldo Leopold was writing these words in the 1940's, he, as well as other leading biologists across the continent, thought Sandhill cranes would vanish along with Whooping Cranes.  "At this pivotal time, the crane's capacity to inspire human caring and action made a crucial difference to the species' future, as did the commitment of a few individuals....Sandhill populations recovered because of changes both in human behavior and crane behavior."  (Archibald and Harris in the introduction to On Ancient Wings by Michael Forsberg.)

The conservation of wetlands, the occurrence of adjacent agricultural waste grain fields, and stringent hunting restrictions were all key to this recovery.
Sandhill cranes are tenacious about their migration path and their stop-over sites.  But this behavior is known to change over time with the influence of human activity. Traditionally in the east, sandhill cranes migrated from breeding grounds in Wisconsin to wintering grounds in south Georgia and Florida.  But in recent years the planting of corn at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge, intended to attract and support hunted water fowl, also attracted sandhill cranes.  Consequently, a quarter of the eastern migrating population has wintered in east Tennessee in recent years.
Sandhill cranes staging in waste grain fields adjacent to the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge in 2004.

It is this spectacle of staging and wintering-over Sandhill cranes, along with the reintroduction of the endangered Whooping crane, that has attracted and delighted thousands of wildlife viewers to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in the past nineteen years. In fact, the wildlife viewing festival that resulted, The Cherokee Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Days, was named to the Top Twenty Events list in 2002 by the Southeast Tourism Society.
In this post, with the generous permission of my friend, Charlie Corbeil, naturalist and talented photographer from Brevard County, Florida, you are seeing intimate views of a Sandhill crane family.  The large gathering of cranes described above is made up of family units consisting of a pair of crane parents and usually one, sometimes two, juveniles--juveniles that have rapidly grown to nearly the size of their parents in a few short months, fledged just in time to migrate, and still retain their peeping chick voices. In fact, the cries of a juvenile sandhill crane separated from parents during migration can move an observer to tears.     

Sandhill cranes mate for life.  Young are taught their migration route by their parents and remain with their parents until the next breeding season.  It is in this family unit that young are protected, learn to find food and learn to select safe roosting sites in wetland shallows.  Here is where juveniles are socialized and learn important survival skills, including those needed for pair bonding and reproduction.  

In the beautiful slide show below, you will enjoy a rare close-up view of a sandhill crane family shortly after their two chicks hatch.  Sandhill cranes are attentive parents.  As you view the images, you will find their gentleness heart-warming, their beauty and elegance "beyond the reach of words."  
A special thank you to Charlie Corbeil for sharing his beautiful photography.

In North America there are only two true cranes--Sandhill cranes and Whooping Cranes.  In eastern North America, we enjoy the eastern population of the Greater Sandhill Crane, a subspecies of Sandhill cranes, and in recent years, the Whooping Crane, a reintroduced population whose arrival marked the first wild migration of Whooping cranes in the east in over a century.

A Sandhill Crane Hunt Proposal in Tennessee is now in its final stages and inviting public comment.  Take a moment to visit the links provided below and let the TN Wildlife Resources Commission know you DON'T want a sandhill crane hunt in Tennessee.  If the Commission passes this hunt proposal, Tennessee will be the first state in US history to initiate a hunting season for Sandhill cranes in the east (Atlantic/Mississippi Flyways).  Other states are lined up to follow (KY, MN, WI).
Scroll to the bottom of this page, Sandhill Crane Hunt Proposalto find TWRA's comment link.  Below I have listed some reasons that support opposition to this hunt.  Please add your own.

Reasons to oppose this hunt include but are not limited to: 
  • Sandhill cranes are a valuable wildlife watching attraction in TN.  Initiating a hunt will severely interfere with the pleasure of wildlife watchers.   
  • Hunting sandhill cranes will damage the relationships between the rapidly growing numbers of wildlife watchers in TN and the TN Wildlife Resources Agency.
  • Initiating a hunt on a species that has never been hunted in the east is a serious consideration and requires a longer period of investigation and public input than has been allowed.
  • Initiating this hunt will add an additional danger to rare Whooping cranes that have been reintroduced in the east.  
  • Size estimates for this population are not standardized or consistently measured making the assumptions supporting this hunt inadequate.  
  • Human use and consumption of wetland habitat used by this population is inadequately investigated.    
  • The nine depredation permits issues in TN over the past three years is an inadequate number to support hunting based on nuisance or population management
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission will make the final decision.  The members of this commission  can be found here; email addresses and fax numbers are provided.

To read more about why this hunt is a bad idea visit:

Also visit the TN Ornithological Society's information and position on the proposed sandhill crane hunt and their well articulated letter to the Commission

Clink this link to find out what's happening in Kentucky 

Blog posts around the continent opposing the hunting of cranes in Tennessee:  
The Birder's Report:  Help Stop the Sandhill Crane Hunt
Stephen Lyn Bales, author of Ghost Birds, on Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee.
Gary Louck of Greenback, TN--Cranes in Peril


  1. I can't believe TN is thinking of having a hunting season for the sandhill cranes. That's crazy.

  2. Hi Vickie - beautiful post. I am hosting the next IATB on Tuesday - can I add this to my collection?

  3. One of my favorite Leopold quotes!

    From the TOS letter:

    "Hunters, birdwatchers, farmers, and environmentalists have done a great deal for habitat and wildlife conservation in this state, and still do. We do not want to see a hunting season on what we find to be one of the most charismatic species in Tennessee damage this alliance. We believe that managing Sandhill Cranes as a watchable wildlife resource will help broaden the base of support for TWRA that we will need in the coming decades."


    Thanks for your level-headed activism on this issue, Vickie.

  4. Bravo, Vickie. Great post. I put my NO vote. What a people thinking?? Not - for sure!

  5. I enjoy the sandhill cranes in Florida. We walk up fairly close to them. Your photos are exquisite! Love to paint anyone of them.

    I hate to see any get killed; but in some areas their sheer numbers can become a nuisance. Limited hunting for brief periods in these instances may be considered.

  6. Thank you for your comment, Carol.

    It has taken fifty years for the eastern population of Greater Sandhill Cranes to come back from near extirpation. Only nine depredation permits have been requested and granted by the USFWS in TN in the past three years--not sufficient to warrant management hunting.

    Count protocol is not standard or scientific on this species and it is not clear how these numbers are fluctuating or what factors may cause a future decline in population.

    There are other ways to deal with "nuisance" issues that are clearly described in ICF's page on Crane Hunt:

  7. Thanks again for speaking out! Hope that we can all make a difference and stop this!
    Take care and Happy Birding!

  8. The Sandhill Cranes have a great advocate in you, Vickie! Your dedication to these and the Whooping Cranes is unflagging, and inspiring. This post was a great treat, wonderful looks at the happy family.

  9. Vickie:
    I would first like to compliment you on your beautiful artwork it is truly artwork. Second thanks for "rolling up" your sleeves to work along side those us that get tagged as "blood-thirsty","gun -toting people. Please understand the hunters are willing to work alongside the public that wants to view wildlife this is not a problem. I for one certainly know the beauty of the sun rising at the Hiwassee Refuge and seeing the cranes both Sandhill and Whooping soar overhead and land in the field around my deerstand. I have plowed the fields in which you have photographed and sown the grain in which our waterfowl enjoy and need for nutrition. But as I look in the picture that you took of the large numbers of cranes (that photo was taken on the refuge just below the observation pavillion that the TWRA has provided)I see something missing that once was there. The water in which is in front of the fields once were covered with many species of ducks and geese. Those large numbers of waterfowl have since left the area due to compitetion for food with the cranes. Please understand if the hunting takes place it will not change the scenery of being able to view these birds.The major migration will take place after the proposed hunting season. In Feb. and early March ( you outta come see it,it's a wow)is the best time to get some major large numbers and close up photos. The resident Canadian geese that you see in the area were introduced in 1981 and by a sudden increase in population hunting was established and remains a viable management tool. Having said that we still have a healthy population of geese. I personally have hunted all around the Hiwassee Refuge and have experienced the site of the sandhill cranes for many years, but to try to maintain this intense concentration of birds is extremely risky. This reinforces the fact that even though the cranes may be hunted they will still numerous and visible. I do want every human being to enjoy this beautiful place and many "Crane Day" events in the future it has been a shot in the arm for our community. As a active member of preserving, protecting and conserving our natural resources lets ban together to promote the same goal for the wildlife. I dont mind spending my dollar so WE can all enjoy the wildlife and I certainly Thank you for your contributions which leads me to another idea. Hunters have a self-imposed tax on our guns and ammunition and purchese license to support wildlife.So why not as watchers of wildlife self-impose a tax on camera's,binoculars to create the same flow of revenue? In closing understand I don't have right to hunt or view wildlife it is a God given priviledge, and I never would participate in any thing that be detrimental to one our most precious renewalable resources (Wildlife)

  10. Anonymous,
    Thank you for leaving this thoughtful comment. It touched me deeply, in fact, touched the pain and disappointment I have felt as I've watched this issue divide us all, those of us who love sandhill cranes and want to work together as stewards of nature. It touched me even more that you have tried to understand and respect my views, and made an effort to help me understand yours. That understanding has been sorely lacking in the process that moved this hunt proposal forward. But I also know that this is the first proposal of its kind, a proposal to hunt a species that has never been hunted before in the state of Tennessee, or in any of the eastern states. TWRA had no means to handle it other than their traditional method for moving hunt regulations forward. Hopefully, this experience will help change that.

    I leave for the Commission meetings in Nashville today, and my hope is the end result will restore our ability to work together. You have expressed the attitude and reverence for wildlife that I appreciate in those who have a different cultural tradition and ethic. I call these hunters my friends.

  11. Dear Vickie, I started writing letters to the members of the Tennessee Wildlife Commission about not opening up hunting and killing of sandhill cranes, and was very disgusted to see that all of the members are hunters, and most of them belong to the NRA!!! This is so wrong! It's the wolves guarding the sheep!

  12. This is atrocious. I started a petition today to stop the hunting in Ky. Will you please share it everywhere. In today's madness I would hate to think this is a lost cause. Thank you


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