I have been hearing a few sandhill cranes flying overhead on their way south for the winter. Along with the honking of geese, the call of the sandhill crane is one of the iconic sounds of the spring and fall migrations here on the northern plains.
The sandhill crane’s breeding range covers much of Canada and Alaska as well as some areas in the northern Rocky Mountains and portions of northern California and Oregon. Winter is spent in Mexico and the southern states, particularly Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
It is hard to believe that these birds were once a common breeding bird in the state. In his book “Breeding birds of North Dakota” Robert Stewart mentioned that sandhill cranes were fairly common here before European settlement, particularly in the area north and east of the Missouri River.
Stewart cited several observations of breeding birds in the state between 1843 and 1916 as evidenced by territorial adults, nests, and or young. These observations came from several counties including all the northern border counties with the exception of Divide. Other observations come from McHenry, Pierce, Benson, Grand Forks, Griggs, McKenzie, Adams, McLean and Mercer, Morton, Stutsman and Barnes Counties. It is interesting to note that Stewart also cited Elliott Coues (1874) as mentioning that they were a “common breeder” in the Turtle Mountains.
The sandhill crane population in North Dakota, however, rapidly declined during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to destruction of habitat, indiscriminate killing, and other factors. By the 1920’s they were apparently extirpated from the state.
But that may be changing. There are some encouraging signs that the species may be returning to nest in North Dakota. Todd Grant, biologist at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge recently mentioned to me that sandhill cranes have been occasionally nesting in and around the refuge in McHenry County over past ten years or so. Plus a mature pair of sandhill cranes with a juvenile was observed near Edinburg in July of 2008 by noted Grand Forks birder Dave Lambeth. There may well be other observations of nesting sandhill cranes in the state as well.
So perhaps in the not so distant future we may be able to hear that guttural gurgle of the sandhill cranes throughout the summer. That, to paraphrase Martha Stewart, “would be a good thing.”
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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