Sandhill Cranes are large birds, standing four feet tall. Much of their height is due to long legs and a long neck. If you come across them feeding in a field or pasture, you may be shocked at their size. They seem almost as tall as you are!
There are only eight species of cranes in the world. Two of these are native to North America. And, lucky for us, both of these come to South Texas! One is the highly endangered Whooping Crane, which spends November through April on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The other is the much more numerous Sandhill Crane, which can be found throughout South Texas in the winter.
The crane family has an interesting anatomical feature. The long neck houses a long windpipe. The windpipe, or trachea, is so long that it loops back and forth in the region of the breastbone before even entering the chest cavity. This extra-long windpipe produces a deep, sonorous call. The “voice box,” located at the base of the trachea, makes the sound, and it is amplified down the length of the trachea. The sounds produced are said to be bugle-like, trumpeting or whooping.
Although not so impressive as the Whooper’s bugling, the Sandhill Cranes have a readily recognizable, rattling call that can be heard for miles. In fact, you usually hear them before you see them, if you see them at all. Sometimes, the flock is mere specks in the sky, bugling away, but sounding much closer.
Cranes might be confused with the larger herons, especially Great Blue Herons. However, cranes have two features that help us distinguish them from the herons and egrets. First when cranes fly, they “crane” their necks forward. They also extend their long legs out behind them. Herons typically fly with their necks curved into an “s” shape. Secondly, cranes standing on the ground have an obvious “bustle” of feathers over the tail. This gives them an unmistakable rounded profile.
Sandhill Cranes are game birds in Texas. The season runs from Nov. 5 to Feb. 5. But, because of the proximity of the endangered Whooping Cranes, they cannot be hunted in the vicinity of Aransas NWR. The stretch of land closed to crane hunting includes all of the coastal area from Corpus Christi north to Lavaca Bay and inland to Victoria and Highway 77. So, east of Highway 77, there is no crane hunting.
It is not that Sandhills and Whoopers look so much alike, but they are similar. With only around 300 Whoopers left in the wild, the world cannot afford to lose one to a hunting accident.
Sandhill Cranes are a soft horizon gray with very dark gray wingtips. Whoopers are white with black wingtips. Both have a crimson patch of bare skin on their heads. Our cranes are majestic birds. They walk with stately strides over wetlands and fields. Their red crowns shine in the sunlight. But to see them in flight is to truly appreciate them.
I recall vividly the first time I saw Sandhill Cranes. A flock of about 100 birds flew over Highway 77, as I watched from the roadside. They were close enough to be quite loud as they uttered their rattling call. Their legs and necks were extended as they circled. Then, the lowest ones pulled their legs in below them, arched their wings in a sort of canopy, and gently descended. Soon all hundred of them were dropping slowly. They looked like a wave of paratroopers, all coming to the ground with perfect grace. It was beautiful.
You can see this display nightly if you happen to find a roost of cranes. The flocks often come back to the same shallow pond or wetland every evening. By roosting in the water, they can sleep knowing that the splashing of an approaching coyote or other predator will wake them in time to take flight.
During the day, Sandhill Cranes fly out to fields to feed on seeds, tubers and waste grain. It is estimated that 90 percent of their diet is waste grain at some times of the year. This grain-foraging habit can get them into trouble with farmers. Hopefully, the cranes arrive before the crops are sown, after the grain is well up, or after the fields have been harvested. But unfortunately, especially in Texas, winter wheat is sown just about the time that the cranes come in for the winter.
Wheat farmers in Bee and Goliad counties have to resort to propane-powered cannon (pop guns) to scare the cranes away until the grain sprouts. The noise works, at least for a little while. Perhaps you’ve heard them popping? I suppose these farmers could become hunters and harvest a crane or two for the table. But somehow a Christmas crane doesn’t sound as tasty as a Christmas goose.