For the last four days a trio of sandhill cranes has been hanging out in our backyard. They are large birds equipped with a bill designed for a multitude of food options. The red on their forehead is distinctive, and within the species we often see gray birds and rust-colored birds.
The reason for the difference in color within the species is the result of an interesting habit.
As a description accompanying a photo on the StarJournal.com, “A sandhill crane was strutting through a field in the Crescent Flats recently. This is a great example of how drastically these birds can literally change the color of their plumage. The reason for the change in color is that sandhill cranes preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers. The mud can be either brown or red but is usually red up here in the north. We have lots of iron rich soils in this region. The feathers soak up the mud’s color just like a sponge and it lasts for a long time. It is believed that the birds do this to camouflage themselves during the nesting season. As the summer goes by, the rusty red color eventually wears off and the bird turns back into it’s normal gray color.
Here’s my own photo showing a closeup of the bird’s rust-colored plumage.
These birds have exceptional eyesight, a product of their evolutionary need to watch for predators and find food. From our backyard, they study us carefully when we move around inside the house. For the most part, they recognize that we are not a threat unless some sudden movement startles them.
As you can see, their heads and necks are not rust-colored, because that long bill used to preen their other feathers cannot turn around and preen the head. Yet that distinctive red patch of feathers on their head is a distinctive field mark.
Like many species of cranes around the world, sandhills spend summers in northern climes and head south to escape snow and ice. Yet many linger on the edge of that climatic differential as long as they can find food.
For now, these birds are happy to nibble on seed at our bird feeder.
One of the fascinating behaviors of sandhill cranes is their bonding rituals. They will dance around each other in graceful ground flights, raising their wings and chasing across the ground. I captured a short video last night and did a screen capture to show one of the cranes racing across the grass.
Dancing with the cranes
That was an invitation that I could not resist. A little while later, I walked out on the lawn and began flapping my arms, dipping my head and acting like a crane. They did not run away.
My wife stood back at the house watching my displays. She’s as fascinated by these birds as I am. They’re not particularly afraid of human beings, but will move off when a person walks by with a dog. But last night a cyclist came rolling around the path where they stood preening themselves and all they did was trot aside.
All this still feels unusual to me. Forty years ago when I was birding the marshes near the place where I now live, it was a rare sight to find a sandhill crane. There were few breeding pairs in Kane County. Now there are dozens, each raising one or two young a year.
In spring we hear them migrating north in March. Long ago, that was a rare treat. While out running, I’d hear their calls in the distance and stop to stare at their vee-shaped flocks approaching from the south.
One spring day a massive group of 400 birds came streaming overhead as my brother and I were out in the street playing catch with a baseball. The noise they made as they flew overhead was tremendous. Their calls are a richly guttaral sound forged over ten million years of evolution. To hear that sound is to be in touch with the origins of life itself. To dance with the cranes is a gift indeed.
Come fall, the flocks grow large again as the birds head south for the winter months. Usually it is in early November that they come through Illinois in great numbers. Typically they arrive at mid-day on the strength of some favorable wind. Their calls fall out of the cool, clear autumn sky or get carried across the landscape by brisk winter winds on gray November days. There is an urgency to their voices on those days.
All these natural facts align with my own sense of seasons. We run and ride through winter, spring, summer and fall. We sense the rhythms of time and opportunity. While we may not migrate, we do move with the seasons.
It is summer now, and I will keep trying to dance with the cranes. They seem to sense a kinship of some sort, or else think I’m plain nuts trying to dance them into action. At any rate, the effort makes me happy. The cranes don’t seem that offended, even if my wings appear stubby and bare. Perhaps it is my forehead, naked and red with summer sweat, that makes them wonder if I am the real thing.
But don’t you love the hairstyle on this crane? I’m envious.