Birds – Sandhill Crane

The most abundant American species is perhaps the Sandhill Crane (G. mexicana), which is found from the “Mississippi Valley west to the Pacific coast, south to Mexico, and eastward along the Gulf coast to Florida and Georgia.” It is smaller than the last, being only forty to forty-eight inches long, and has a more slender bill. In the adult the entire plumage is a deep slate-gray, sometimes tinged or washed with rusty, the primaries becoming darker and the cheeks and throat paler. The young are brown throughout, and as in the young of the Whooping Crane the head is entirely feathered, the cheeks remaining so even when the bird is mature. This species does not frequent the seashore, nor is it usually found in wet situations, “but prefers dry prairies, plowed fields, sandy hills, and like places,” where it feeds on all the small animals it can catch, such as mice, frogs, grasshoppers, and probably young birds, as well as succulent roots, seeds, etc.

Dr. Coues, in his usual felicitous style, has given the following account of the habits of this bird: “Thousands of Sandhill Cranes repair each year to the Colorado River Valley, flock succeeding flock along the course of the great stream, from their arrival in September until their departure the following spring. Taller than the Wood Ibises or the largest Herons with which they are associated, the stately birds stand in the foreground of the scenery of the valley, the water now reflecting the shadow of their broad wings, then the clear blue sky exhibiting in outline their commanding forms. Such ponderous bodies, moving with slow-beating wings, give a great idea of momentum from mere weight — of force of motion without swiftness; for they plod along heavily, seeming to need every inch of their ample wings to sustain themselves. One would think they must soon alight fatigued with such exertion, but the raucous cries continue, and the birds fly on for miles along the tortuous stream, in Indian file, under some trusty leader, who croaks his hoarse orders, implicitly obeyed. Each bird keeps his place in the ranks; the advancing column now rises higher over some suspected spot, now falls along an open, sandy reach, swaying mean-while to the right or left. As it passes on, the individual birds are blended in the hazy distance, till, just before lost to view, the line becomes like an immense serpent gliding mysteriously through the air. When about to alight, fearful lest the shadows of the woods harbor unseen danger, the Cranes pass by the leafy intricacies where the Ibises and other less suspicious birds feed, and choose a spot for the advantage it may offer of uninterrupted vision. By nature one of the most wary and discreet of birds, his experience has taught the Crane to value this gift and put it to the best use. His vigilance is rarely relaxed even when he is feeding, where less thoughtful birds feel perfectly secure. After almost every bending of his long neck to the ground, he rises erect again, and at full length and glances keenly on every side. He may resume his repast, but should so much as a speck he cannot account for appear to view, he stands motionless, all attention. Now let the least sound or movement betray an unwelcome visitor — he 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.”

The nest of the Sandhill Crane is situated on the ground, sometimes in a marsh, but often in a perfectly dry location, being usually placed among rank-growing vegetation, which partially conceals it, yet does not wholly interfere with the vision of the occupant. The eggs are usually two in number, their average size being about four by two and a half inches, and their color olive-brown or drab, spotted with darker brown and purplish gray. The nestlings are covered at first with a soft, dense down, bright rusty on the upper parts and pale grayish on the lower. They are said to be unable to fly until they are nearly as large as their parents, whom they follow about until able to take wing, escaping pursuit and danger meanwhile by running and hiding. When taken quite small they are easily tamed and are said to make engaging pets, though some-what dangerous on account of their propensity to use their sharp bills.