Birds – Cranes

(Family Gruidcae)

Sandhill Crane

(Grus mexicana)

Called also ; BROWN CRANE

Length—40 to 48 inches.

Male and Female—Entire plumage leaden gray, more brownish on the back and wings. Upper half of head has dull reddish, warty skin covered with short, black, hairy feathers. Long, acute bill. Very long, stilt-like, dark legs, the tarsus alone being lo inches long. Tail coverts plumed. Immature birds have heads feathered and more rusty brown in their plumage.

Range—Most abundant in the interior, on the Pacific slope, and the southwest; nests from the Gulf states northward through the Mississippi valley to Manitoba; winters in the Gulf states and Mexico.

Season—Summer resident only north of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

Many people confuse this bird with the great blue heron, that is more often called by the crane’s name than its own; but beyond a certain resemblance of long legs and necks, these two birds have little or nothing in common.

Immediately on their arrival in the spring the cranes go through clownish performances, as if they were trying to be awkward for the sake of being ridiculous; far from their real intention, however, for it is by these antics that mates are wooed and won. They bow and leap ” high in the air,” says Colonel Goss, “hopping, skipping and circling about with drooping wings and croaking whoop, an almost indescribable dance and din in which the females (an exception to the rule) join, all working themselves up into a fever of excitement equaled only by an Indian war dance, and like the same, it stops only when the last one is exhausted:”

—strange performances indeed for birds preeminently pompous and circumspect! Certain of the owls and plovers and the flicker also go through laughable antics to win their coy brides, but such boldness of wooing by the female cranes presages the arrival of a “coming woman” among birds, still more nearly approached by the female phalarope, that, without encouragement, does all the wooing.

One may more easily hope to find a weasel asleep than to steal upon a crane unawares. Before settling down to a feeding ground, it will describe great spirals in the air to reconnoitre, the ponderous body moving with slow wing beats, while the keen eyes scrutinize every inch of the region lest danger lurk in ambush. Grrrrrrrrrrroo, a harsh, penetrating tremolo calls out to learn if the coast is clear, and grrrrrrrrrooo come back the raucous cries from sentinels far and near. Hidden in the grasses, cramped, motion-less, breathless, one may be finally rewarded by the alighting of the great stately bird that finally comes drifting downward and stalks over the meadow, alert and suspicious. Not a sound escapes its sharp ears, nor a skulking mouse its even sharper eyes. It will thrust its beak unopened through its prey, whether it is a fish, frog, mouse, or reptile. This terrible weapon makes cowards of the crane’s foes, small and large, yet it is the bearer of the spear that is the greatest coward of all.

In addition to animal food, cranes eat quantities of cereals, and when vegetable fed, as they are apt to be in autumn, sports-men hunt them eagerly, but not too successfully, for no other game bird, unless it is the whooping crane or the wild turkey, so taxes their skill. It is impossible to steal upon them on the open prairie; and in the grass-grown sloughs approach is hardly less difficult. After each bending of the long neck, up rises the head for another reconnoitre. If any unusual sight come within range, the bird stands motionless and tense; then convinced of real danger,”lie bends his muscular thighs, spreads his ample wings and springs heavily into the air, croaking dismally in warning to all his kind within the far-reaching sound of his voice,” to quote Dr. Coues. In spite of its heavy body the crane rises with slow circlings to a great height until, large as it is, it becomes a mere speck against the clouds. The long neck and stilt-like legs are stretched out on a line with its body, in the attitude made so familiar by the Japanese decorators of our screens and fans. During the migrations a flock proceeds single file under the leadership of a wary and hoarse-voiced veteran, whose orders, implicitly followed by each, must first be repeated down the line that winds across the sky like a great serpent.

The Whooping, or White Crane (Grus americana), the largest bird we have, measuring as it does over four feet in length, rarely comes east of the Mississippi, although its migrations extend from South America to the Arctic Circle. Apparently the habits of the two cranes are almost identical, and it is even claimed by some that one alleged third species, the little brown crane, is simply an immature whooper, in which case every feather it owns must be shed before it appears in the glistening white plumage of its parents. Both the whooping and sandhill cranes build nests of roots, rushes, and weed-stalks in some marshy place, and the two eggs of each, which are four inches long, are olive gray, in-distinctly spotted and blotched with cinnamon brown.