Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nesting sandhill cranes ready to raise young

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 9, 2009)

I recently wrote about watching a male sandhill crane court a female with elaborate displays of wing flapping, feather fluffing, stomping on the ground and jumping up and down.

The lady to whom this dance was directed appeared to be completely uninterested in his performance.

While her partner pounced upon a gangly weed to demonstrate how forcefully he could destroy an enemy, the female sandhill crane walked away, pecked at seeds and generally ignored her suitor's dramatic show of virility.

Although she may have looked and acted indifferent, some of those masculine attempts to impress must have penetrated her feathery feminine psyche.

Today, a mere three weeks after the mating dance, the female sandhill crane is contentedly incubating a clutch of eggs on an exposed spit of sand at the north end of our lake.

I'm excited!

This will be the second time our family will have an up-close opportunity to follow the life cycle of sandhill cranes.

I'm not alone in enjoying such a spectacle. After my column appeared, many readers wrote to tell me how thrilled they also are to be following the development of sandhill crane families.

Leesburg resident Joe Schlegel's letter began, "Are you ready for some GOOD NEWS? I sure hope so, 'cause the sandhill cranes from last year are still here and nesting in the same place, and she laid TWO eggs this year, same as last year, but this year ONE hatched and we have the most BEAUTIFUL baby sandhill crane walking around with the proud parents.

"WOW!! What a sight!" he added. "The papa stands guard and the mama has been teaching the baby how to pick bugs out of the ground."

It is typical of sandhill cranes to return to a nest site for many years.

Although there is no way to know for sure, I suspect that the cranes now nesting near our lake are either the same cranes or the descendants of the cranes that nested here eight years ago. The water level now is similar to what it was then — very low — with many exposed sand or peat islands, ideal for nest sites.

Gertrude de Jong is another Leesburg resident fortunate enough to follow a crane family's antics.

"We live on a pond, too, in a retirement community in Leesburg and for the last month and a half we have been watching two of them prepare their nest to receive two big beautiful eggs," writes de Jong.

"We watched them protect them, hover over them, taking turns to keep them warm, and about 10 days ago a beautiful little chick came into being," de Jong continued. "Only one of the eggs hatched. Now each day we see them protect the little chick with their nearness and at the same time teaching it to feed. What a beautiful sight. At the first indication of a predator in the area, both birds make the most awful noise and scare the osprey away."

I have not yet discovered how many eggs our sandhill crane is sitting on, but the last time we watched a nesting pair raise young, two eggs hatched. Unfortunately, only one of those colts survived.

Baby sandhill cranes are called colts because of their long, strong, well-developed legs. A day after hatching, colts are already able to run after their parents.

Although two eggs are usually laid, more often than not only one bird survives. The eggs — about twice the size of the largest chicken eggs — incubate for approximately 30 days, and during that time both parents take turns sitting on the eggs.

The nest, which typically sits only inches above the water in marshy areas, is a casually built affair made from marshy vegetation.

From my vantage point on the shoreline about 40 feet away, I can't even see the cranes' nest. The mama crane's body — or is it the papa's? — completely covers whatever reeds, cattails or tall grasses the birds have haphazardly woven together into a shallow bowl.

What I do know is that ever since I first observed the birds nesting, one parent or another has stayed glued to the nest site, leaving the remaining partner alone to forage the shorelines and fields for food.

Assuming that the cranes can successfully fend off predators — as the male so ably demonstrated in his mating dance — we soon should be observing the young colts' arrival.

It only takes 10 weeks after the baby birds are born before they are able to fly, so much should happen in a relatively short time.

I'll be sure to share with you as many stages of the happy events that I can record.


  1. How fortunate you are to be so close to them. My husband and I spent a week in Nebraska last March to see the migration of them. Near Kearney, they gather in a flock estimated at 600,000. It was a sight to see! And what a racket! :)

  2. Hi Sue - We are fortunate to have this chance to observe the cranes up close but so were you to see them in such large groupings. I've seen videos of the crane gatherings and they are amazing. You're right about the racket but what cool sounds sandhills make! Very prehistoric sounding.