The Sandhill Crane Experience

It's an Opportunity Not to Be Missed

|  Story by Laura Kiran  |

Among the true signs of fall is the migration of birds to warmer climates, but opportunities for most of us to see this seasonal movement on a grand scale are usually few and far between. That’s unless you are one of the fortunate individuals to attend “The Sandhill Crane Experience,” a Forest Preserve program planned for Saturday, November 18.

The program, which kicks off at Plum Creek Nature Center in Crete Township, transports participants by chartered bus to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Medaryville, Indiana. Here, thousands upon thousands of sandhill cranes gather this time of year, using the site as a rest stop in their travels to Florida and Georgia.

And the view is not to be missed.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“This is a spectacle right out of a television wildlife special, except it is not in some far-off, exotic location, but right here in the Midwest,” explained Forest Preserve interpretive naturalist Bob Bryerton.

The Forest Preserve annually hosts this program to give the public an up-close and personal view of these large, long-necked, long-legged birds, which stand as tall as 5 feet. Last year, there were as many as 15,000 sandhill cranes on site the week the program was held.

Starting around October, the cranes begin arriving at Jasper-Pulaski, an 8,142-acre wildlife area known as one of the largest local staging areas for these birds. However, peak viewing time at this location is typically mid-November. During migration, staging areas are important spots for the cranes to rest, feed and engage in social interactions with one another.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

The process is incredible to watch, according to Bryerton. Because they are large, striking creatures, they are easy to observe.

“You can see them coming in groups from every direction to land on this one field and socialize with other sandhill cranes,” he said. “Visitors will get to see these cranes fly in and out in large numbers, vocalize and possibly see some courtship-like behaviors such as dancing and throwing grass up in the air. They are really not courting this time of year, but they still go through some of these behaviors. The noise from their calls is very loud, and they seem to be catching up with each other. It’s like a big crane party that is ongoing, with more joining in all the way until sunset.”



Having a wingspan that can stretch as long as 6 feet, these ruby-headed travelers can fly 25-30 miles per hour at maximum altitudes ranging between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. And, while migrating, a sandhill crane can cover as much as 200-300 miles per day. So, a rest from time to time is probably well deserved.

At the Indiana wildlife area, “you can see the cranes coming in from miles away in groups that look like little clouds over the marsh and the faraway treetops,” Bryerton said.

Most of the cranes at Jasper-Pulaski congregate about 100-300 yards away from the viewing platform, but some move in even closer – perhaps to get a better look at the people watching them.

“Some cranes will get within 50 yards and there is definitely a chance for photography with a good camera and a long lens,” Bryerton said. “We have even taken shots through our spotting scopes with a camera phone. While it may not be the best quality, it gives visitors something to remember the day. But with so many cranes in the field and flying over, there are a lot of opportunities for a good photo.”


(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

While there are 15 species of cranes in the world, the sandhill crane is one of only two crane types found in North America. The other is the rare whooping crane, of which only 300 are believed to be in existence today. Bryerton said that not only is the sandhill crane awe-inspiring to see in person, but “they are old birds in terms of evolution. They have been the same for a very long time, so there is something primordial about them that seems to suggest they belong here and that you are viewing a special creature, that they are tied to land somehow.”

The oldest discovered fossil of a sandhill crane was estimated to be 2.5 million years old, which is more than 11/2 times older than most bird species in existence today.

According to Bryerton, visitors to past Forest Preserve crane viewing programs have been so enthralled by the sight of these birds that they almost have to be pulled away when it’s time to leave. “They just want to get one last look,” he said.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

Registration for “The Sandhill Crane Experience” is limited, so sign up early to attend. The cost is $15 per person and attendees are encouraged to dress for the weather, which can be windy and cold. The upside is that some of the windiest days often have the most birds on site. “The birds are there no matter what the weather,” Bryerton said.

While anyone can make the trip to Jasper-Pulaski on their own, the Forest Preserve offers the benefit of a guided experience led by interpretive naturalists who are familiar with the area, can answer questions, provide additional information and share their enthusiasm for these amazing birds. “It is hard to explain,” Bryerton said, “but once you see the cranes, you are happy to share the experience with others.”

Want to know more? Here are five fun facts about sandhill cranes:

• A sandhill crane’s call can really resonate, with the ability to be heard for up to a mile. Its trachea (windpipe) is shaped like a saxophone and is about 5-feet long. In comparison, a typical human trachea is about 4 inches in length.

• Sandhill cranes can live up to 25 years in the wild. The oldest sandhill crane on record was at least 36 years, 7 months old, having been banded in 1973 and found again in 2010.
• These birds mate for life, with both the male and female taking turns incubating the eggs.
• Young sandhill cranes are called colts. Mobile from the time they hatch, they have down feathers, open eyes and the ability to leave the nest within hours. Colts can grow to about 4-5 feet tall within the first three months of life and can gain up to 20 percent of their body weight per day. 
• While sandhill cranes have grey plumage on the majority of their bodies, some will appear to have rusty brown feathers during the spring and summer. This is an artificial coloring that occurs when these birds preen with the reddish mud of regions rich in iron. This coloring is lost in the fall when the cranes molt.

(Lead image via Wikimedia Commons)