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They're Coming!

It is time for the return of the Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski Game Preserve.  If you have not taken the opportunity to see this amazing sight, this fall might be a good time to begin a yearly tradition.


The Greater Sandhill Crane, a migratory species of cranes, breeds in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and parts of Canada and winter in Southern Georgia and Florida.  This species, standing about 3.5 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet, is the largest race of Sandhill Cranes.  It is one of only two species of Cranes that breed in North America.  The mated pair choose marshy ground or grasslands to lay their 2 buff coloured eggs and it is the male who defends the nest.  The plumage of the mature bird is a rusty grey color; the immature more brownish in color.  Their forehead is covered with a reddish skin.  The difference between male and female with their long necks and legs, is distinguishable in size only.

During the fall migration, some 12,000 to 16,000 cranes make Indiana their home.  The average population estimate from 1997 to 2004 of individuals is 30,000 per migration period.  Jasper Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area , located on Route 421 about 40 miles south of Michigan City, Indiana, is in a region once famous for the vast Kankakee marsh.  This marsh, which consisted of more than a million acres of reeds, bogs, ponds, wild rice, liky pads, moss, beaver, waterfowl and other wetland species was drained in the 19th and early 20th Century to make way for agriculture.  Today, this vast wetland is essentially gone, however it serves as an autumn migratory path for the Greater Sandhill Crane during October and November each year.

The cranes feed in surrounding farmland on insects, tubers, mice, etc., in an area that once was the vast and famous Kankakee marsh.  As evening approaches, they return to congregate in the Jasper Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area.  The dry rattling call of the Sandhill Crane can be heard more than a mile away.  This call is distinctive ..."Kar r  r o o o."  Once heard, it is not forgotten.  Many times the call is heard long before the birds come into view.  As the density of roosting cranes increases, returning birds must carefully pick their landing site.  Cranes returning against a sunset sky and the contrails of jetliners coming in and out of Chicago make a scenic backdrop for the many birdwatchers and camera buffs.

After sunset and well into dusk, the cranes continue to congregate.  The sky literally swarms with returning birds.  The cranes linger here well into fall, but with the first winds of winter, they head south.  In mild years, migrating birds pass through Indiana well into December and January.

Jasper Pulaski Game Preserve offers an observation deck overlooking the vast fields where these migrating cranes also  engage in calling and dancing, which includes behavior such as bowing, jumping, running and stick or grass tossing. 

 If you would like to learn the current status of the crane population  or find a map to the observation deck, you may use this link Jasper-Pulaski Game Preserve  - or contact IDNR Jasper Pulaski office at 219-843-4841. 

Other sites of interest: sandhill.cfm


Contributor to this article:  S. Morrison