Buglers in the Sky
Photo by Steven D. Bailey
November is Peak Time to See Cranes Migrating Over Region
by Sheryl DeVore
To some, a flock of migrating sandhill cranes sounds like bugles calling from the sky. Others say it resembles a rolling rattle, while some liken it to a prolonged French pronunciation of the letter R. There’s no mistaking the sound of these five-foot-tall, long-legged, gray birds with a nearly six-foot wingspan when they are flying over the Chicago region in autumn and spring. Especially in November, the cranes can be heard calling as they migrate over natural areas, neighborhoods and if the winds are right, close to downtown Chicago.
Those looking to the sky will see 10, 20, 100 or more cranes in a loose formation seemingly sailing in the air as they head toward Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, in Medaryville, Indiana, (in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm) to rest and feed before completing their final journey south to Georgia, Florida and other states for the winter.
Jasper Pulaski is a major fall flocking (staging) ground for the eastern population of the greater sandhill crane, one of several subspecies of sandhill crane, according to Paul Johnsgard, author of Cranes of the World. Cranes that nest in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario fly to the Indiana staging area roughly 80 miles southeast of Chicago in autumn. They use a similar route to return to their breeding grounds in spring, says Johnsgard. Northern Illinois, especially west of the city, is on that route, which means observers can see migrating cranes in March and April, as well.
Seeing thousands of cranes migrating in the region is a fairly recent occurrence. Numbers of this eastern population of sandhill cranes declined drastically in the early 1900s, according to Jim Bergens, property manager at Jasper Pulaski. “Some believe there were only about 300 nesting pairs of the eastern population in the 1930s,” he says. The species was placed on the Illinois endangered species list in 1989, upgraded to threatened in 1999 and delisted in 2009 as numbers rebounded. Today, the breeding population in the upper Midwest is now between 65,000 and 95,000, according to the International Crane Foundation (SavingCranes.org), in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Sandhill cranes are now breeding in the Chicago region, particularly in the marshes of McHenry and Lake counties, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey (inhs.illinois.edu).
Although some say overhunting of the cranes led to their decline, the greatest reason was the draining of wetlands, Bergens says. “We began to understand in the 1930s that habitat was the key element in reducing the numbers of all kinds of critters.” Cranes need wetlands, typically near prairies or uplands, in which to nest. Restoration and conservation of these habitats helped the species rebound. In addition, a ban on hunting cranes in states where it was allowed helped. Hunting cranes is now allowed in some Midwestern states, but not in Illinois.
Bergens says hunters and hunting-related activities help fund conservation projects such as restoring and protecting wetlands. He notes that when cranes were counted in the middle 1970s at Jasper Pulaski, there was an estimated migration population of 2,500. Today, close to 30,000 stop by the wildlife area. “We’ve reached a peak population of 35,000 here at one time. We’ve had three peak counts over 30,000 last year,” Bergens says.
Locating sandhill cranes in November in the Chicago region on their way to Jasper Pulaski is as simple as choosing a sunny day with strong northwest winds and cool temperatures, and then listening and looking to the sky.
Doug Stotz, a conservation ecologist for the Field Museum (FieldMuseum.org) in Chicago, for example, was standing in his Westchester yard when he heard and saw flocks of from 10 to 135 birds on November 10, 2018, in the middle of the afternoon. On November 18, 2018, birdwatcher Chris Traynor reported a flock of about 200 cranes flying southeast over the North Austin neighborhood in Chicago in the early afternoon.
Depending on the weather, fairly large groups can even be seen in December. In Lincolnshire last year, Gerry Batsford spotted a group of 60, and then another group of 100. Karen Lund saw three flocks of roughly 200 birds fly over Marengo on December 6 last year. Those that want to watch thousands of cranes leave their roosts in the morning or enter them at night can visit Jasper Pulaski.
At sunrise, flocks rise out of the roosting marshes to land in a nearby pasture, and then fly to agricultural fields to feed on waste corn and other grains, says Bergens. He joins other observers at sunrise to count the cranes as they leave the wetlands for the day. “They are in smaller groups when they fly out, but most come to roost in a series of small wetlands at the park, which is adjacent to what’s called the goose pasture viewing area,” he explains. At sunset, the cranes fly into the pasture next to the marsh from all directions before heading to the marsh roosting spots for the night. “It can be an amazing sight, and deafening, as well,” says Bergen.
Observers also can drive around the area during the day looking for cranes feeding and even doing their courtship dances in harvested farm fields. Cranes mate for life, choosing their partners based on dancing displays. Displaying birds stretch their wings and leap into the air. Young of the year might practice dancing with the adults in fall. Bergens says those driving in the area during the day should take care not to go on private property while looking for the cranes.
Within the past 15 years, another crane species has joined the flock at Jasper Pulaski—the federally endangered whooping crane. “It’s pretty exciting to see them,” Bergens says. “They’re big, white birds.” These whooping cranes are part of a Wisconsin breeding population introduced with a federal recovery project. A few whooping cranes may be spotted out in fields or coming in with the sandhill cranes to roost for the night. “November is a good time to look for the whooping cranes,” he advises.
A crane fossil found in Nebraska from the Pliocene period roughly 2 million to 5 million years ago indicates that it is one of the oldest known bird species still alive. That fact should make watching these creatures even more fascinating as autumn folds into winter.
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.
Participate in the Crane Count next April
When cranes return to breed in Illinois and other states in spring, the International Crane Foundation (SavingCranes.org) sponsors a one-day public count. In mid-April, roughly 1,000 volunteers visit local wetlands to count sandhill cranes and whooping cranes in 90 counties in six states. The 2020 annual crane count will be held from 5:30 to 7: 30 a.m. on April 18.
For more information, visit SavingCranes.org/education/annual-midwest-crane-count.