If you’re this animal and you want a mate, you had better be a good dancer. I’m serious, this bird dances for the privilege to mate for life, and life can be two decades or more! I know my wife was blown away by my dance moves and now look, we have a mortgage!
This extraordinary bird is the Sandhill crane. It is native to all parts of Canada and migrates south for the winter like so many other Canadians. These migratory birds are part of a group of birds called neotropical birds, which means they migrate north for summer and south for winter. In the winter they will settle in deep southern United States and northern Mexico. And when they travel north they settle all over Canada and in particular right here in Ontario. In fact, they may be in your back 40 or meadow marsh right now.
When they arrive north single birds will pick mates by dancing for each other. Basically, they stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air in a graceful yet gangly fashion. Once satisfied with each other’s dance moves they begin to breed in open wetland habitats surrounded by shrubs and trees. They will nest in marshes, bogs meadows, prairies, any moist habitat near standing water. These habitats make for safe nesting grounds. Chicks will incubate for a month and hatch precocial, which means ready to run. One chick typically fledges and spends about 10 months with its parents. When the family emerge from the wetlands they group up with other cranes in fields, meadows, croplands and pastures.
So finding these birds seems pretty easy considering they spend lots of their life in areas that we are familiar with. But have you ever seen one?? I didn’t see my first crane until 2010 outside of Wawa. They’re everywhere but so hard to see. So what to look for….a chicken on steroids? Close. They’re large, about 4 feet tall with long necks and a crimson cap on their head with long bills and are a blend of grey and brown coloration of feathers. They have long legs and large strong feet and look like an a emu or to the untrained eye a great blue heron.
So now you know what they look like but still can’t find them, that’s ok because you’ll probably hear them before you ever see them, unless you go to Manitoulin Island in the fall and watch them congregate in the hundreds before their flight south. When listening for sandhill cranes, listen for loud rattling bugling calls that lasts a couple of seconds and are repetitive. These bugling calls can be heard a couple miles away, there so loud. You can even hear them in flight when they’re really high too. So if you can’t see them, you will definitely hear them and when you do for the first time know that that trumpeting sound is a result of their long windpipe that coils into the sternum resulting in the rich booming bugle.
Sandhill cranes have a big diet which includes roots, plants, grains, aquatic insects and larvae, amphibians, reptiles, nesting birds and mammals. Not much preys on healthy adults but chicks can fall prey to foxes, coyotes, wolves, weasels, hawks, eagles and owls. They will defend themselves vigorously and leap into the air at aerial predators striking at them with their feet.
We can safely say the sandhill crane is a true emblem of Canadian wildness. Their scientific name, Antigone canadensis, means “likely birth of Canada”. Fitting since Canada is their mother land and they return home every spring and it embodies what it means to be a Canadian, roughing it outside all summer then flocking south in huge numbers when the snow hits. FYI, they’re on the move right now so keep your ears strained. Good luck!
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