Sandhill Cranes have distinctive calls you recognize immediately, once you know them. They rattle, and croak and reverberate through the estuary. The first time you hear that sound, you’ll expect something magnificent, prehistoric, indefinable. And that’s precisely what you’ll encounter. Cranes have ancestry reaching into the Miocene Epoch, 24 to 5 million years ago. They are visions of that geological timeline … of their past in the murky marshes, when oceans receded, the mountains grew and the grasslands seeded themselves across the continents.

Sandhill Crane at Reifel Bird Sanctuary

The cranes pictured here are resident birds at the beautiful George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia. This family has, as you can see in the movie clip, little fear of humans, owing to the year-round presence of birders, photographers and families on the trails encircling their 850 acres. I believe the sounds I filmed here are “guard calls” — warning vocalizations. We’d been on the trail in relative quiet, in the company of habituated ducks and these cranes. A sudden cacophony and panic flight in the duck community set off a chain reaction of alarm, as the cranes turned their eyes to scan the skies. I’m assuming it was an eagle warning although I can’t say with certainty. The area was swarming with adult and juvenile Bald Eagles who regularly patrol the marshes like white-headed drones.

Sandhill Crane at Reifel Bird Sanctuary 2

Among Sandhill Crane subspecies, there are Lesser and Greater — with Lesser approximately three feet in height, and Greater reaching five feet. Other subspecies including the Mississippi and Cuban Sandhill Cranes are critically endangered.

Cranes are family oriented and bonded, as this bit from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes:

“Sandhill Cranes have close and durable pair bonds and family relationships. Pairs remain bonded and monogamous for periods of multiple years. Mother, father, and young stay together from the time of hatching into the following March, a period of nine to ten months. During this time, first-year birds feed on their own, but depend on their parents’ locating food and providing protection from predators and other territorially aggressive Sandhill Cranes.”

These magnificent birds are a sight to be appreciated in our day, their populations nearly wiped out by hunting and development earlier in the century. Over-hunting and development are still critical concerns for crane survival, according to the International Crane Foundation. A recent 10,000 Birds blog post led me to an article in which further breaks down the genetic diversity of these birds, and discusses how human threats could be a significant factor in depleting these important sub-populations.

Crane Communications