Environmental Almanac: Sandhill cranes put on a show
The calls of sandhill cranes carry on the wind by some magic. Whether they are flying, and your view of them is obscured by a tree line, or they're feeding in a harvested cornfield, where their rust-stained gray feathers make them difficult to pick out, you typically hear cranes before you see them.
And hearing sandhill cranes is a great pleasure. They talk quietly among themselves in family units, which include mother, father and one or two young of the year, which are called colts. (Colts stand as tall as their parents by fall, but their plain gray caps are distinct from the bright red ones on adults.)
What's more dramatic, though, is the way cranes call to one another as they collect in larger groups, either in flight or on the ground. To me, these calls resonate in a mix that brings together something of pigeons cooing, something of geese honking and something less birdy, too — a stick rattled along serrated ridges on a wood block.
You may know by one means or another that sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds of thousands along the Platte River in western Nebraska during their migration north in the spring. But did you know there's a scaled-down version of that spectacle in western Indiana each fall, one that's much more accessible to us? It takes place at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, which is just 60 miles north of Lafayette.
Sandhill cranes that breed in the upper Midwest and central Canada begin gathering at Jasper-Pulaski near the end of September, and their numbers grow until mid- to late November, when they peak at about 20,000. Imagine that — 20,000 of these majestic birds together in the same place less than half a day's drive from where you are now.
During their stopover in Indiana, the cranes keep a very regular schedule. At night, they roost in marshes at the reserve, where they're safe from predators such as coyotes. In the morning, for about a half hour either side of sunrise, they come together to socialize in Goose Pasture, a vast field that's overlooked by an observation platform.
The cranes then head out into nearby agricultural fields where they spend the day feeding. There they take advantage of corn that was lost in the harvest, as well as a wide range of other foods —everything from plant materials to worms, insects, mice and snakes.
Your best bet for seeing cranes up close is to cruise the gravel roads south of Jasper-Pulaski (carefully, of course, with respect for the people who live there) and pull over quietly to watch them feed.
The real crane spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski takes place in the hour around sunset, as they congregate again at Goose Pasture before heading back to the marshes for the night. At that time, flocks pour in from every direction, and the calls of birds already on the ground blend with the calls of birds in the air to create music like none you'll hear elsewhere.
This gathering also affords great opportunities to see the cranes "dance"; they bow, they jump into the air, they flap their enormous wings and generally wind each other up, then settle down again, sometimes in a wave of activity that ripples across the field.
If you go to see the sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski, you'll definitely want to have binoculars, and if you have access to a spotting scope, bring it along, too. And take extra-warm clothes. You wouldn't want to be driven from the observation platform by cold before the twilight show is over.
You can find the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area on the web at http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3091.htm.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.