Good Natured: Sandhill Cranes! And Whoopers! In St. Charles!

Good Natured: Sandhill Cranes! And Whoopers! In St. Charles!

  • EDITOR’S NOTE: This Good Natured column was written by Pam Erickson Otto, the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

No doubt about it, things are looking up here at Good Natured World Headquarters.

Ah, but maybe I should clarify. By “things” I mean me, and by “up” I mean literally skyward. I can’t seem to stop looking up, and listening up, too, in an effort to spot one of the most magnificent spectacles of the nature year: the sandhill crane migration.

For me the experience stirs emotions of wonder and awe — and relief.

For it wasn’t too long ago that these birds were nearly extirpated — science-speak for gone — from our entire region. The double whammy of overhunting (sandhills are sometimes referred to as the ribeyes of the skies) and habitat loss (as wetlands were drained for row crops and development) led to a perilous drop in numbers during the first half of the 20th Century.

In fact, records indicate that the greater sandhill crane ceased breeding in Illinois in 1890. It would take more than 100 years before habitat restoration and conservation efforts would pay off; the state’s Endangered Species Protection Board removed sandhills from its Threatened & Endangered list just 11 years ago, in 2010.

I well remember a text message I received right around that time from coworker Tim Timberlake. As our district’s park safety supervisor, Tim’s job is to always be on the lookout for potential threats to the visitors in our parks and throughout the community. His sightings over the years have included everything from flying squirrels and tree frogs to predatory stink bugs and luna moths and once, memorably, a box of domestic “Easter” bunnies dumped at Ferson Creek Fen. But I digress.

Tim’s long-ago text was pretty brief and to the point: Are there any emu farms around here?

The message, which as I recall arrived late in the evening, got me thinking. I could picture a property with peacocks, as well as assorted neighborhoods with backyard chickens. But emus?

I texted the best response my sleep-fogged brain could muster: Why do you ask?

Within a minute or so Tim called, then proceeded to describe the large bird shepherding two smaller ones across, of all places, Crane Road. Nearly 5 feet tall, dark and acting menacingly toward Tim and his truck, the bird did sound rather emu-like. But given that that stretch of Crane passes by a marsh — sandhill cranes’ preferred breeding grounds — and that the timing coincided with when the birds would be rearing their young, I asked Tim whether he could discern the color of the adult bird’s feathers.

When he replied gray with a red cap, we had our answer. Sandhill cranes were once again breeding in St. Charles.

Since that time, our local sandhill population has continued to grow. We still have birds breeding in the wetlands off of Crane Road, as well as several other locations in Kane County.

This trend reflects what’s going on with the Eastern sandhill population as a whole. According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife estimates, sandhills east of the Mississippi River numbered more than 94,000 in 2020.

As the population of sandhills has increased, so has public interest. Every year we field a few dozen calls and emails from people curious about these stately birds and their habits.

The correspondence typically has two seasonal peaks — one in spring and one in autumn, both of which align with the cranes’ migrations. And other than being a little later, thanks to our unseasonably warm weather, this fall’s calls have been coming in as expected.

I love hearing the excitement and curiosity in people’s voices as they describe seeing a large flock of cranes flying high overhead, or hearing their distinctive calls — best described as “rattling bugles.” But you know what’s even better?

Getting an unexpected call, like the one we received a few weeks ago. Birders on the lookout for migrating sandhills saw, in a wondrous moment, two whooping cranes enjoying a stopover on their journey south. Whoopers! In St. Charles!

While the sandhills’ comeback has been nothing short of remarkable, whooping cranes’ hard-fought battle from the brink of extinction is absolutely extraordinary. This is a bird whose entire population numbered less than two dozen as recently as 1941.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of federal and state agencies, and organizations like the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI, whooping cranes numbers have now surpassed 800 — just a couple hundred birds shy of the goal of 1,000 and what wildlife biologists consider a sustainable population.

By the time this fall migration ends, more than 20,000 sandhills will have flown over northern Illinois. Mixed in, here and there, will undoubtedly be a few more whoopers. Scan the skies these next few weeks and see if you can spot some large, jagged Vs of migrating cranes. Some might be too high to identify individuals, but for those flocks down low, be sure to look as close as you can at each separate bird.

You might be lucky enough to note one that’s just a bit larger than the rest, and bright white, with black wing tips and a splash of red on the head: a whooping crane, in all its glory.

Maybe then you too will agree, things indeed are looking up.

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