Sandhill Cranes

Migrating through Massachusetts

For several years, the Sandhill Cranes have been spending a few days here and there in Western Massachusetts during their annual migration. This August they have been hanging out in the Northampton area, quite close by, for days at a time. I was delighted to have a couple of hours watching them.

Last spring I had been excited to find a single bird so it was really fun seeing four of them together and watching their interactions, intentional or possibly simply random. The single male I had seen in the spring gave an incredibly loud call, pointing his beak straight into the air. These four made no noise at all while I was there. I have this photo of him calling but no video. However, below I have attached a YouTube video with exactly the sound I heard that day. Amazingly loud!

I’m including this YouTube video of the male crane’s call. It is amazing!

Pretty crazy!

Sometimes they would stop and pay close attention to their territory – look right; look left; look front; look back – all clear. Then back to eating and relaxing. This pattern of two together in the middle and two on the outside repeated itself many times, regardless of the activity. At first I thought that maybe the middle two were this year’s juveniles and the other two were parents. Sandhill Cranes mate for life and the babies stay with them for 9-10 months, including during migration, so it made sense. However, it was pointed out to me that juveniles don’t have the red head coloring. So these are all adults and their relationship to one another remains a mystery!

Suddenly one bird just flopped to the ground, lying there for several seconds without moving. This sequence spanned a short 20 second period, but long enough for me to ask my neighboring birder if he thought it had just died! Birders have suggested that it might have been lying on an anthill to let the ants into its feathers, an activity called “anting”.

Most of the time the four birds were just eating and resting but then suddenly they would get excited and jump around together, tossing the corn husks in the process. To me the most interesting aspect of the spectacle was seeing how dance-like their movements and postures were. (And, to anthropomorphize, I see the parents thinking, “These kids!”)

Let the ballet begin!

Pas de trois

Pas de deux

the prima donnas

And as dusk arrived, off they flew, across the fields to their roosting spot.

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