As promised, I wanted to do a little feature on the Sandhill Cranes we met on our trip to George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. My friends – both of whom had been to the sanctuary before, and thus knew what awaited us – didn’t tell me about the cranes. Instead, they left the presence of these crazy critters as a little surprise for me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s most patient or observant birder, but you positively can’t miss these guys. They are enormous (about the size of a Great Blue Heron) and make a noise kind of like you’d imagine a pterodactyl might make. Also, they’re pretty used to their human neighbours in the park, so they’ll casually stroll down the path toward you. It’s a little disconcerting being that close to such large pointy beaks, I’m not going to lie! I was completely intrigued by these cool-looking birds, and I immediately wanted to learn a little more about them.
Sandhill Crane Fun Facts:
Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) like to live in open areas like grasslands, meadows, and wetlands. They can reach about 20 years of age, and mated pairs stay together year-round. These cranes eat mostly grains and seeds, as well as some insects, invertebrates, and the occasional vertebrate. This explains why they like it at Reifel, where offering seed to the local mallards is a common practice – you can check out my little video to see the resulting ‘mallard army’!
Sandhill cranes build big nests of piled vegetation, either floating on the surface of a marsh or attached to more vegetation along a bank. Their chicks are precocial, which is a fancy way of saying hatched ‘ready to go': they can walk right away, and can feed themselves within a day of hatching. They still need Mum and Dad though – their parents offer shelter and protection from pretators, and teach them all the behaviours and skills they need to be good cranes. Once again, Cornell’s All About Birds helped me out with the Sandhill Crane natural history. Check ’em out if you’ve got any bird-related curiosity, they know their stuff.
Reifel’s Resident Sandhill Cranes
It turns out that these neat-looking cranes can be seen regularly at Reifel. There’s a resident pair that lives there all year, and they are often accompanied during the fall and winter by their latest offspring. Sandhill Cranes often overwinter with their parents before joining up with other juvenile cranes to form a social group until they reach their breeding age of about three to five years old.
In addition to the resident family, other Sandhill Cranes congregate in the sanctuary in the non-breeding season (late summer to early winter). The sanctuary reports that last October there were 36 cranes using the area as a roost at night – each day the birds would head out to find some good grub in neighbouring farm fields. If you’re interested, you can read more here about the history of Reifel’s resident and visiting Sandhill Cranes.
My First Sandhill Crane Encounter
As I said, I didn’t know at first that these birds were Reifel residents. As we made our way around the sanctuary, I was totally charmed by the American Coots. Filming a couple of them paddling around in the shallow marsh, I was suddenly startled by a bizzare honking noise overhead.
Here’s my introduction to the Sandhill Cranes!
They approached us on the shore and strolled around, calmly preening and checking out the area (all the while keeping a wary eye on us). One of them even decided to take a nibble on my pants, just to see if they were made of something tasty.
Eventually they went on their way, but we ran into several more Sandhill Cranes during our time at the sanctuary. If you like, you can check out my Reifel Flickr set for some more crane photos. Needless to say, these astonishing birds were one of the highlights of the trip, and I’m excited to return in the spring – I’d really like to see a crane baby!
More Heart of the West Coast: