Sandhill crane migration marks fall in Georgia
Species of bird is one of world’s most common cranes
SOCIAL CIRCLE — It might seem hard not to notice greater sandhill cranes as they migrate through Georgia. Adults stand more than four feet tall, sport a nearly seven-foot wingspan and emit a loud, rattling trumpet call laced in bass.
But these big, gray birds often fly at almost out-of-sight altitudes during the day and when heard or seen are occasionally mistaken as Canada geese by people not familiar with them.
For others, however, the fall migration to southern Georgia and Florida is a seasonal landmark, with flights peaking in this state at about Thanksgiving and sometimes involving hundreds of sandhill cranes a day. Large flocks circle high into the sky as they ride thermal air currents, constantly cackling back and forth.
Then they assemble into formation and begin long, straight glides before catching the next thermal several miles closer to their destination. When conditions are less favorable for soaring, including sometimes at night, they flap along in formation at lower altitudes. Usually they roost for the night in an open pond or wetland.
“It is really a spectacle if you learn to appreciate it,” said Jim Ozier, a senior wildlife biologist and program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “It’s the only really large bird we have that passes through in significant numbers during migration, but is typically not present here at other times of the year.”
Sandhill cranes are one of the most common cranes in the world. Greater sandhill cranes, the largest subspecies, breed in the northern U.S., Canada and even eastern Siberia, and winter in the southern U.S. and in Mex- ico, according to the International Crane Foundation. Georgia havens include the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near the Florida line, where wintering greater sandhill cranes mix with resident Florida sandhill cranes, and Panola Mountain State Park in Rockdale, Henry and Dekalb counties, which provides valuable stopover habitat for migrating cranes.
The loss of wetlands and riverine ecosystems is a significant threat to the birds, which favor open, fresh-water wetlands but, depending on the subspecies, can range from pine uplands to plowed fields.
Sandhill cranes are protected in Georgia, but it is likely that native Americans and early settlers occasionally enjoyed a meal of them. The species’ migration covers much of the state, including population centers such as metro Atlanta.
Keys to spotting cranes are simple: Keep an eye on the sky — sandhills travel in v-flocks like geese — and listen. “Once you’ve heard that sound, you’ll always notice it,” Ozier said.
The Nongame Conservation Section works to protect and enhance populations of nongame species such as sandhill cranes. Buying a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, available for a one-time $25 fee online and at county tag offices, or making a donation through the State Income Tax Checkoff provide vital funding for those efforts.
Check online at www.georgiawildlife.com to learn more about Wildlife Resource’s Nongame Conservation Section and the State Wildlife Action Plan, a conservation blueprint for Georgia’s diverse wildlife and natural habitats.
At a glance
A closer look at greater sandhill cranes, one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes.
• Appearance: 3-5 feet tall, long neck, legs. Gray body; red head. Wingspan 5-7 feet.
• Calls: Listen at www.savingcranes.org/species/sandhill. cfm
• Range: North America, Cuba and parts of Siberia to Mexico.
• Habitat: Freshwater wetlands, grasslands, meadows and fields.
• Trend: Population stable to increasing.
• Cousins: Other subspecies include the lesser sandhill, Florida sandhill, Canadian sandhill, Mississippi sandhill and Cuban sandhill.
• Family time: Mated pairs of greater sandhills live together year-round and migrate with their offspring.
• Pathfinders: Operation Migration, the ultralight-led migration project helping reestablish endangered whooping cranes, used sandhills as test birds in 2000.
• Online: International Crane Foundation, www.savingcranes. org/species/sandhill.cfm; North American Crane Working Group, www.nacwg.org
Sources: International Crane Foundation, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
On a related note, 17 young whooping cranes are on their way to and through Georgia. Ultralight aircraft are leading the 1,250-mile Operation Migration flight from central Wisconsin to wintering grounds on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The highprofile project headed by the public-private Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is aimed at re-establishing this “severely” endangered species in eastern North America.
As of Monday, day 38 of the migration, the cranes and crews had made it to Jackson County, Indiana, in the southern part of the state. Check for updates at www.operationmigration.org/ (click “In the Field”).