The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Thursday, 26 January 2023 15:29

Migrating sandhill cranes descend on Southeast

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cranes sandhill 5During winter migration, visitors to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge can view thousands of greater sandhill cranes.  Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency via Appalachian Voices

Beyond festivals, sandhill cranes pass through Southeast in increasing numbers

BIRCHWOOD — Every year in mid-January, a few thousand people gather here for The Sandhill Crane Festival because the cranes have returned. The community center at Birchwood is filled with vendors selling wildlife art or promoting conservation. The nearby Cherokee Removal Memorial at Blythe Ferry offers a chance to celebrate Cherokee culture and learn the story of indigenous people who were taken from their homes and sent on a long journey to Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, there are opportunities to see and appreciate these amazing birds through February in East Tennessee and beyond.

At least 20,000 cranes gather or pass through Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, having come from their nesting grounds in southern Canada and the upper Midwest to winter here in the American South. Many spend the winter there, but some will continue southward to Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and the Gulf Coast.

Another large group spends the winter near Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, and other small groups are scattered around the state. Many have stopped briefly at their staging area, the Jackson-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge in northeast Indiana, to rest and feed before moving on.

Such staging areas are essential to migrating birds, giving them the energy to finish the flight.

For sandhill cranes, corn fields are a significant source of nutrition. Any field will do, even after the corn is harvested, for plenty of spilled grain remains to benefit the cranes. They also harvest insects, small birds and mammals and frogs found in nearby ponds. A complete description of their diet and life history is available on the All About Birds website from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The sandhill crane is one of 15 species of cranes found worldwide. Peter Matthiessen tells the story of these magnificent birds with photographs of each species in his book, The Birds of Heaven. He includes powerful stories of America’s two species of cranes, the sandhill and the endangered whooping crane. He also refers to “the bird from the east,” the name Siberian residents give to the lesser Sandhill cranes that winter in the Southwest United States and arrive in Siberia each spring to nest and raise their young.

The International Crane Foundation identifies five subspecies of sandhill crane, including the lesser and greater sandhill cranes, which are the two migratory subspecies of sandhill cranes. There are also three non-migratory subspecies, the Florida, Mississippi and Cuba sandhill cranes. The latter two of the nonmigratory species appear on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service List of Endangered Mammals and Birds.  

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the global population of sandhill cranes was estimated in 2020 to be 450,000–550,000 and expanding. Of all the world’s cranes, only the common — or Eurasian — crane is comparably numerous (2015 estimate: 491,000–503,000). It is even wider-ranging on the other side of the globe. Assessing the population of migratory birds that can fly hundreds of miles in a day is notoriously difficult!

The eastern population of greater sandhill cranes dropped to approximately 50 birds in 1925. Numbers have grown substantially, and many states, including Tennessee, now allow limited hunting of the birds. Today, the eastern population of greater sandhill cranes exceeds 100,000. The National Audubon Society’s crane refuge on the Platte River in Nebraska hosts another population each spring with more than 500,000 cranes, but this is a mixed flock of greater and lesser sandhill cranes.

In his classic work, Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold included an essay titled “Marshland Elegy.” He believed the sandhill crane was headed for extinction and spoke of the sadness of marshes that had no cranes. Today, he would also celebrate the presence of cranes in our world.

So, why do people celebrate cranes? Their elegance in flight or their movements on the ground, sometimes called the dance of cranes, may inspire our imagination. Perhaps their call, which I have elsewhere compared to “doves amplified 1000 times,” attracts humans to cranes. Whatever the cause, a crowd of people will gather next January to celebrate the cranes at Hiwassee Refuge.

If you don’t want to wait for the 2024 festival, the cranes remain at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge through February, and the viewing platform is open for crane viewing and photography during daylight hours. 


Baby Sandhill Breakfast by Andrea WestmorelandSandhill crane with colt at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Baby sandhill breakfast: I never saw a sandhill crane totally submerge its head to get food before. It appears to have found the tender, blanched vegetation near the root of the plant. The other parent wasn’t far away; so a good watch for danger was maintained.” Creative Commons Mark Andrea Westmoreland
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