Sandhill cranes

If you’ve been outside near a stream or field recently and heard an unusual rolling, high-pitched trumpet-like sound, it may have been a sandhill crane.

Montana State University's Accoustic Atlas has a great recording of a sandhill crane online at this web address: http://acousticatlas.org/item.php?id=2331.

The big gray and tan birds — with wingspans that can stretch to more than 6 feet wide — can also be identified by the bright red patches on top of their heads. In the springtime they arrive from the south where they have spent the winter. Some will stop in Montana to breed, nest and raise their young. Others will continue flying farther north.

When I was young, I don’t remember ever seeing a sandhill crane. Their populations were much smaller back then, but have since grown. Some places along the crane’s migration route, you can see 20,000 of them all crowded together.

One of the fun things about sandhill cranes is that they have a very odd mating dance. They hop around on their long legs, dip their heads and open up their wings. They’ll even throw grass into the air to show off a bit. Once the birds find a mate, usually when they are between 3 and 7 years old, they will stay together for life. The birds can live 20 years. One that was tagged in Wyoming lived to 36.

A female sandhill will lay two to three eggs in the spring. The young birds can walk and swim shortly after breaking out of their shells, but typically only one will survive through the summer.

Because sandhill crane populations have recovered, Montana allows limited hunting of the big birds in the fall. Last year the state allowed about 245 hunters to pursue sandhills. One hunter who has a television program calls them the “ribeye of the sky.” A ribeye is a flavorful beef steak.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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