Sandhill cranes have been around for a long time. These birds have large grayish bodies with long necks and their heads are topped with a crimson red crown. There are two sandhill species that winter in the Central Valley: the greater sandhill and its smaller cousin, the lesser sandhill crane. The lesser migrates as far north as Siberian, Canada and Alaskan breeding grounds. When the cold weather creeps in they head south to wintering grounds mostly in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and California. There have even been sightings in Cuba.
Ten million year old fossils from the Miocene Epoch seem to match the modern sandhill cranes we have today. These large birds are found predominately in North America. We folks in northern California are blessed because the greater sandhill crane spends spring and summer months here in Modoc and Lassen counties and many also range in southern Oregon.
Both species of sandhill cranes live and nest in freshwater wetlands typically and lay two eggs, which both parents incubate. They are a curious bird and will eat anything they find that seems interesting. So this makes them opportunistic eaters. Their diet consists of mice, snakes, insects, or yummy worms, as well as enjoying plants, grains, corn and gourmet tubers.
Cranes are known for their “unison calling” and unique ballet during mating season: throwing their heads back, sharing a duet and leaping high in the air.
The majestic greater sandhill crane has returned early this year. Crane experts contend that wildfires and drought are reasons for the migration change. The fire issue is no small matter as the National Interagency Fire Center recorded 647 wildfires burned more than a million acres in Oregon last year alone.
Drought also may have influenced the cranes to leave early. Food has been harder to find in the wildfire areas the cranes have to move into other areas. The western crane conservation people help manage the sightings for the International Crane Foundation. They also say that it’s too early for them to have migrated.
The cranes make good use of corn and rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, as well as marshlands. They use wetlands for nighttime roosting as protection from coyotes and other predators. Experts say we have probably lost least a third to half of the cranes’ wintering options because vineyards now have replaced natural habitat in addition to habit destruction from the widespread fires.
The lesser sandhill cranes also migrate through the central valley along the Pacific Flyway, too, but arrive later than their cousins. It will be interesting to see if they also arrive early.
This week we spotted hundreds of greater sandhill cranes in the fields located along southern border of Modoc County near the Pit River along Route 299, just west of Alturas—