Crowds of sandhill cranes an unforgettable sight in native swamps

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At the dawn of European settlement, the North American Midwest was a very different landscape. Today’s environment is profoundly modified by the hand of man. Few people probably have an idea of ​​the conditions that prevailed a century or two ago.

The former Grand Kankakee Marsh in northern Indiana is one example. When settlers first arrived in this area, the Kankakee River flowed 233 miles west from its springy origins near present-day South Bend. Its twisting circuit has carved hundreds of bends and dead arches, and half a million acres of wetlands and pristine forests have buffered its shores.

The huge swamp was one of the largest wetlands in North America. Just 70 miles to the east was the Great Black Swamp, which covered much of northwestern Ohio. It spanned almost a million acres. Driving the region today, one would have little idea that some of America’s richest wetlands occupied these lands.

By the mid-19th century, farmers had set to work to drain the Kankakee swamp. By the turn of the 20th century, their work was done. The Kankakee River had been channeled through a 133 mile ditch like a plumb bob. The wetlands were almost gone, transformed into endless monocultures of beans, corn and wheat on a pool table.

While the loss of native flora and fauna was staggering – worse than we’ll ever know – some creatures still haunt their ancestral home.

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Foremost among the survivors is the sandhill crane. It is a spectacular bird four feet tall with a wingspan of almost seven feet. A large one can weigh 12 pounds.

For millennia, sandhill cranes have staged in late fall and early winter in the Kankakee Marshes. Locally breeding birds were increased by those that nested further north. While most of the local nesters have been eradicated, legions of others still congregate in the remaining pieces of habitat.

Jim mccormac

The crane oasis is Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Northwest Indiana. It’s only a 4.5 hour drive from Columbus. I visited at the end of November, near the peak of the cranes. About 30,000 birds were found in the area.

At night, the cranes roost in the protected marshes of the wildlife reserve. At dawn, they spread out in the region’s corn stubble fields, where they glean the spilled grain. Woe to any mouse that shows itself. Sandhill cranes are opportunistic omnivores that grab any edible piece, plant or animal.

Thousands of cranes working in the fields is a sight not to be forgotten soon. At one point I was photographing a flock nearby when something raised several thousand birds about a mile away. Their furious bugles merged into a low roar, clearly audible from my distant post. The herd suggested a thunderstorm cloud streaming over the horizon.

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Sandhill cranes are very social, and by late afternoon the feeding herds converge on a huge prairie in the wildlife area called Goose Pasture. A large observation deck overlooks the site, making it easy to view.

Waves of cranes, traveling in groups large and small, move towards the pasture, trumpeting all the time. The cries of the cranes are earthy and primitive, a resonating woody clatter reminiscent of an earlier era. Interspersed are the brilliant whistling whistles of the juveniles. Young people stay with their parents for most of their first year.

Many dances take place among the thousands of noisy devotees. Ornate displays are one way cranes communicate. A pair of gambols make vertical leaps, spread their wings in ornate flourishes, and bow deeply towards each other. Sometimes we throw clods of earth or plant debris in the air. Sometimes the dancers trigger reactions among their colleagues and localized flash dances erupt.

Just after dusk, takeoffs begin with huge groups leaving en masse for the resting marshes. The show ends with a bang, a never-forgotten wall of sounds.

Mid-November to mid-December is the peak period for cranes in Jasper-Pulaski. I highly recommend a visit. More details are on: in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/properties/jasper-pulaski-fwa.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.


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