2019 Spotlight Bird is the Sandhill Crane
by Ella Sorensen
Something deep and primordial in the call of a crane reminds us of our wildness.
A wildness that words cannot explain
For wildness knows no definition.
It is in us and around us
When I am out in a marsh and a wild crane calls out to whatever it is to which wild cranes call
It echoes back an answer and wildness within me responds.
For wildness dwells within us
We are part of it.
And when we stop and listen
It is then we truly know
Cranes, magnificent birds; regal, tall and stately, have commandeered the wonder and awe of humans for thousands of years. Since ancient Egyptian hands chipped crane images into rock reliefs, cranes have maintained their cosmic appeal throughout the ages, being depicted often in art and literature of many diverse cultures in wide ranging locations
With fossils dating back nine to ten million years, cranes rank among the most ancient birds on earth. The Sandhill Crane, one of the fifteen species of cranes that exist in the world today, made its first fossil appearance two and a half million years ago.
Thirteen of the species of Crane occur, scattered across the Eastern Hemisphere. Two species, the Sandhill and Whooping occur in the Western Hemisphere both limited in range to North America. The Sandhill Crane is the most abundant of earth’s fifteen species; the Whooping Cranes the rarest.
Three of the six subspecies of Sandhill Crane are non-migratory, remaining year round in the same area.
Migratory cranes interpret and respond to the changing winds. In spring it is the south wind that calls and the cranes give answer, rising in flight to begin their annual passage northward to ancestral nesting areas. The staging in spring of roughly half a million migrating Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska is one of the best known and most spectacular phenomena of the bird world. In fall migration clear skies and a strong tail wind from out of the north signal the time has come to begin once again the journey south to wintering grounds. These southern flights pass the knowledge of traditional migratory routes honed to perfection through the millennia from experienced adults to newly hatched birds of the year.
Sandhill Cranes nesting in the marshes of Great Salt Lake are part of the migratory subspecies that nest from Utah north in the Rocky Mountains centered in the Yellowstone ecosystem and winter in southern Arizona into Mexico
Bird feathers come in a vast diversity of color from vibrant to drab spanning almost every color visible to the human eye and even beyond into the ultraviolet range. Most feather colors like red, yellow, black and brown come from pigments such as carcinoids and melanins found in plants and animals consumed by the bird. Other colors like the iridescent shimmering blues depend on the structure of the feather and vary with the angle of refracted light.
In a behavior unusual among birds, cranes paint themselves! Using their bill, the cranes rub soil rich in iron onto their feathers. Adult Sandhill Crane plumage is prominently gray but individual birds show a wide array of rusty brown coloration. Some say the best makeup artists make the most desirable mates.