Living in Sandhill Crane Country
By Mark Armstrong
Broadcast 8.23 & 8.26.2023
Ancient voices speak
Jumping dance with flapping wings
A vision to behold
The first sound we hear these early summer mornings is the prehistoric, other-worldly call of Sandhill Cranes. It rises deep from their impossibly long necks, climbs into the sky, and stretches for miles across the countryside.
Their strange, guttural calls reverberate like something from a science fiction movie. This is fitting as cranes are one of the oldest birds on the planet, with fossil records dating back 2.5 million years. The secret of their strange call is in their chests. A crane’s trachea loops around its breastbone and is nearly as long as the bird itself, creating a kind of echo chamber. These calls are part of cranes’ sophisticated system of communication that keeps the family together, reinforces the strong pair bond, and announces danger.
With a length of nearly four feet, a wingspan of six feet, and standing four-and-a-half feet tall, Sandhill Cranes are hard to miss. With buckskin-gray feathers they look like small deer when seen from a distance foraging in fields. The distinctive red cap on their heads is not a patch of feathers—it’s exposed skin that displays aggression when defending a nesting territory.
I’m not alone in my fascination for cranes. Native Americans from the Hopi Tribe in the Southwest to the Ojibwa of the Upper Midwest have revered and worshiped Sandhill Cranes for thousands of years. Some have carved them in totem poles—others have celebrated with elaborate crane dances. Many Indigenous people believe the mating dances of cranes symbolize hope, joy, and new beginnings. Another symbol is a matter of the heart, honoring their monogamous lives and teaching the values of faithfulness, commitment, and love.
Year after year, we’ve followed the flight of dozens of cranes calling to each other as they looked for a safe place to land near our home. Last year, a mated pair landed, taking advantage of the abundant fields here in the Bitterroot Valley. In late spring and throughout the summer, we watched the pair continuing to fly from our neighbor’s ranch.
During hikes along the alfalfa fields, we kept an eye out for signs of a nest, being very cautious not to encroach on the cranes’ privacy. We envisioned their healthy, long-legged chicks (known as colts) riding on their parents’ backs, gaining knowledge of the habitat from a safe vantage point.
We were speculating, but hopeful they had nested and were successfully raising their family. Cranes typically have only one or two colts, but even with the best conditions a large percentage of cranes die in their first year. While crane populations are stable throughout North America, scientists believe the greatest risk to the species’ long-term success is the small numbers of surviving young each year and the loss of habitat.
As parents with two teenage sons, we felt a certain kinship with the cranes, whom we envisioned had a thriving family nearby. Like the cranes, we were doing our best to position our children for success, helping them with college and encouraging their search for summer jobs. We were preparing them for the inevitable challenges when they left our nest.
The adult cranes were teaching us calm acceptance. As the cool respite of autumn arrived, we continued to see them flying short forays to the south, and we assumed they were warming up for the long flight to their winter grounds.
Every time we saw them fly, the adult cranes were alone—no colts in sight. We knew the natural world does not always deliver happy endings. Our family talked about the sacredness and uncertainty of life and how grateful we are for our good fortune.
A few days later, in early October, we heard the call of the cranes again and rushed outside to see them flying south in formation—mother and father in front and their two healthy offspring flying close behind. After months of challenges and uncertainty, the natural world provided a successful outcome for our family of Sandhill Cranes.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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