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One of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge’s most unique visitors has to be the Sandhill Crane. These birds are among the tallest birds in North America, standing up to 4 feet tall with a wingspread of 6-7 feet. As of Mon., Nov. 27th, 24 Sandhill Cranes were spotted off of Refuge Lane on the Duck River Unit near New Johnsonville. This siting is not unusual as the refuge gets a few of these birds migrating through every winter. However, lately the numbers that stop briefly here are increasing and the length of stay has been a few weeks.
cranes are largely gray with a red patch on the crown of the head.
Their long legs are black as are their beaks and feet.
They are wading birds like the Great Blue Heron and spend their
time searching for food in large freshwater marshes, prairie ponds,
marshy tundra or grainfields. Their
breeding grounds are up north ranging from Siberia and Alaska east
across to Arctic Canada to Hudson Bay and south to western Ontario.
The ones that migrate through here are heading to their wintering
grounds in the southeast, which can be as far south as Florida.
Hiwassee, a state wildlife refuge area in east Tennessee, has
around 4,000 sandhill cranes that consistently use that area.
cranes can migrate in great flocks and assemble in vast numbers at
places like the Platte River in Nebraska.
There birdwatchers gather to see what must have been a common
sight when the species bred over most of the interior United States.
It is to observe the mating dance that also attracts many
birdwatchers. This mating
dance is quite spectacular with members of a pair facing each other and
leaping into the air with wings extended and feet thrown forward.
Then they bow to each other and repeat the performance, uttering
loud croaking calls. These
courting birds also run about with their wings outstretched and toss
tufts of grass in the air.
six races or subspecies of sandhill crane found in North America.
The three subspecies that are non-migratory also have the
smallest populations. Two
populations, the Mississippi sandhill and the Cuban sandhill are in
danger of extinction, and the Mississippi sandhill crane has a national
wildlife refuge devoted to saving that population.
But it’s the larger cousin the whooping crane that is one of
the rarest birds in North America and the most famous of the endangered
species. With only 21
cranes in 1940, conservation efforts have increased the number of
whooping cranes to a world population of 400, only half of which are in
some sandhill cranes have had a large role in the conservation efforts
of the whooping crane. Because
of their similarity in natural history, sandhill cranes have been used
as surrogate parents to raise whooping crane chicks.
attention lately has been an unusual experiment exploring the same idea
as in a recent movie “Fly Away Home”. In the movie a young girl and
her father lead a flock of geese into a migration pattern with
ultralight aircrafts. In real life this past October, a hand-raised
flock of sandhill cranes were led by an ultralight aircraft from Necedah
National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National
Wildlife Refuge in Florida. This
unusual sandhill migration, took 32 days, traveling 624 miles and passed
right through the middle of Tennessee.
is that if the sandhill cranes complete the journey and return back to
Wisconsin on their own in the spring of 2001, the same training
procedure and route could be used with whooping crane chicks as part of
the second phase of the study. Pictures
and information about this fascinating experiment can be viewed on the
web at http://bringbackthecranes.fws.gov/
On the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, we can never predict just how long our brief visitors will stay. Last year a smaller group of sandhill cranes attracted a surprising number of birdwatchers to the refuge due to the fact that they stayed near publicly open roads for several weeks. To get to the Duck River Unit take highway 70 east from Camden. At New Johnsonville turn onto Long Street and follow the brown signs to the refuge entrance.