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Nature’s dancers: A look at Sandhill cranes at local wildlife preserves

Living the Wild Life

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Bill Schiess,

The early morning light caught a small flock of Greater sandhill cranes wading through the shallow water of a flooded field waiting for the universal heat source to warm them. As they warmed they began to pair up, started their calls that echoed across the marshes and fields before their dancing began.

Their calls are called “unison calling” which announces to the world that they are now a couple. The female begins by raising her bill high in the air emitting two high pitched soprano-like sounds, announcing her success in finding a mate. This is usually followed by the male but as the display continues the female makes at least twice as many calls as the male does. She wants everyone to know of her good fortune.

As the bond grows between the two cranes other calls are used, like a “guard call” which warns other cranes of intruders warning of danger lurking nearby. Another call used often is a “contact call” that is very low pitched and very soft to let other cranes know where they are.

Bill Schiess,

Sometimes I find the crane’s calling a little irritating; but I love to watch their dancing and I am jealous of their abilities. They spend time practicing their dancing year around as it is believed that it is an important aspect of motor development, relief of tension and deters aggression from other cranes.

During courtship the dancers are as good as those humanoids that compete in “Dancing with the Stars.” They leap in the air, spreading their wings in unison, dipping their heads and fling things at each other. I even caught one picking up a dried cow-pie with its bill and throwing it at its partner. Must have wanted to play Frisbee! The courtship dance creates a bond between the two that often lasts a lifetime even though occasionally a bachelor male will try to steal the female and a fight will ensue between the two males.

Bill Schiess,

Sandhill cranes are omnivores – they eat anything; snakes, mice, insects, slimy things, baby birds and lots of grain. They love grain and when they congregate in large numbers before the fall migration they can be devastating to crops.

One of the largest summer congregations of the Greater sandhill cranes can be found in the Gray’s Lake National Wildlife area in Bingham County. Other areas to look for them are Market Lake Wildlife Management Area and Camas NWR. If you are lucky enough to live near some marshland or waterway like I am, you can watch and listen to them on a regular basis.

Many of them nest in small wetlands and ponds in Island Park where you may be a surprised to find them. When found there, it is always fun to play hide-and-seek with the male as he tries to lead you away from the female on the nest or tending the colts.
Every spring I wait anxiously for the first calls and look for the dancing of the cranes.

Bill Schiess,


It looks like all most all the snow geese have moved on but they have been replaced by Avocets, Black-crowned night herons, Bitterns, Franklin gulls, thousands of coots and a few White-faced ibis. It will be interesting to see what other shorebirds show up.

This week I also saw some Savannah sparrows and the Yellow-headed blackbirds are singing their heads off trying to attract the cutest of the uglies.

A word about fishing Ririe Reservoir. Several of us fished all day trolling for kokanee without even getting a hit. We will have to see if things change as the water warms. I will keep you posted.

Bill Schiess,