on their overnight roost along the Platte River in Nebraska.
Sandhill cranes on their overnight roost along the Platte River in Nebraska. © Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Indiana

Kankakee Sands Nature Notes

Learn about the many wonderful plant and animal species at Kankakee Sands in our monthly Nature Notes articles written by TNC staff.

Alyssa Nyberg Restoration Ecologist

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A Bird, A Plane, A Sandhill Crane

Though she has been offered a leaf blower, my dear friend chooses to rake her leaves the old-fashioned way, because she wants to be sure to hear the melodious, rattling trumpet-like call of the sandhill cranes as they fly over! She doesn’t want to miss a single awe-inspiring moment.

And November is the time to hear them! Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) are most readily seen and heard in Indiana during the month of November. When we are harvesting seed at Kankakee Sands, we hear and see them flying overheard in groups of two to twenty.

Most are making their way to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, just 35 miles from Kankakee Sands, where the cranes congregate in the thousands. The best viewing at Jasper-Pulaski is at dawn at dusk in mid-November from Goose Pasture Viewing Area, where more than 30,000 cranes gather to socialize before heading to nearby roosting areas for the night, or after waking in the morning before dispersing to nearby agricultural fields. It’s quite a site!

As far as birdwatching goes, a sandhill crane is a fairly easy bird to see and recognize. This slender, slate grey bird with a bright red patch on its head is nearly four feet tall! When in flight, its legs and neck are outstretched, unlike the heron and the Canada goose. Its unique loud, trumpeting call can be heard from two miles away. Sandhill cranes are not overly shy, so they’re easy to spot and watch as they graze in agricultural fields.

When nature gives its cue--in the form of cold temperatures—sandhill cranes will migrate down to Florida, Texas or Mexico to overwinter near shallow lakes or rivers adjacent to agricultural areas, pastures, grasslands, and wetlands. There will be a few individuals, however, that will linger in our Indiana area, migrating only after the cornfields are covered in thick layers of snow, rendering their food sources--grain, berries, tubers, insects, snails, and small amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals--inaccessible. 

In the spring, the sandhills will migrate back through Indiana, and continue as far north as Canada and Alaska to their breeding grounds. A select few may stay in Indiana for the summer to raise young if they can find their preferred habitat of open wetlands, marshes, lakes, wet meadows and wet prairies, like those in Nebraska’s sandhills, for which the crane was named.

And indeed, we have wet meadows, and wet prairies at Kankakee Sands. Over the past few years, we had suspected that we had a mated pair of sandhill cranes at Kankakee Sands.This spring our Kankakee Sands staff stumbled upon two adults and a fluffy tan-colored fledgling just hours old!

Mated pairs build their large nests, nearly 40 inches in diameter, on the ground. One to three eggs are laid in the nest, though typically only one of the three eggs is successful.

Young are born with their eyes open, covered in a tan down that blends well with the surrounding marshy vegetation, and leave the nest within a few hours of being born. Staying on the move helps to keep ahead of predators such as foxes, raccoons, coyotes, crows, eagles, and owls. The young stay with their parents all through their first winter and will disperse the following spring.

Sandhill cranes mate for life. At age two, cranes will select a partner. This life-long decision is largely dependent on a spring courtship dance which involves the spreading of wings, graceful jumping, leaping, head pumping, and bowing. The dancing of one male can inspire other males to dance, thus eliciting a dancing frenzy!

There are moments in nature when you are moved by an experience. Sometimes it is something overwhelmingly massive, like the coming together of 30,000 sandhills, other times is the one lone chick, covered in down, just hours old, staring back at you. You never know when it might happen, but when it does, it’s unforgettable.

Be sure to get outside this fall to listen for the sandhill cranes. When you do, you’ll give yourself the chance for an unforgettable awe-inspired experience. You never know when or where it’ll happen, but rest assured that if you are out in nature, it will happen.

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Alyssa Nyberg is restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands project in Newton County, Indiana.