Jean Wilson was on the way to her Paris Crossing home one evening recently when she noticed a group of greater sandhill cranes flying high above her.
She and her husband, Bud, are both sandhill crane enthusiasts who frequently watch for the cranes throughout Indiana’s long winters, but this was the first time she had seen the birds fly so high.
She pulled the car over beneath the flock to watch.
“It was amazing, and I had never seen them do that before,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were doing.”
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On Saturday, the Wilsons visited Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge for the annual Celebration of Cranes event, where participants were shown the best places to see and learn about sandhill cranes in the area. The event also featured guided tours, presentations and themed crafts for children.
The Wilsons attended the presentation so they could find out why the cranes were flying so high.
“They’re looking for a thermal,” Park Ranger Donna Stanley said while presenting a program to more than 30 people.
“A thermal is a good, steady south wind that would take them at a high rate of speed, and the thermals are high in the atmosphere,” Stanley said. “When they’re going upward, you know they’re looking to migrate north.”
The refuge directed participants wishing to see plenty of cranes to areas south of Seymour, west of Ewing, the Medora area and fields in between.
Stanley said she expects the birds to be out of Jackson County either this weekend or the next. The cranes migrate from northern states and southern Canada during the winter and stay until the latter part of February or even early March.
Many of the sandhill cranes already are returning north. The last count the biologist at the refuge made showed there were about 10,000 cranes in the area. That’s about half of what the population Jackson County had in December and mid-January.
The cranes are seen — and heard — in the fields of Jackson County throughout winter feeding on waste grain. In the evenings, they return to areas like the refuge, where they find wetlands for the night to protect themselves from predators such as coyotes.
“If they hear splashing in the water, they know a predator is coming across, and they wake up and they can fly off,” Stanley said. “They’re intelligent birds.”
At this time, the cranes are trying to find a mate to nest, where they will have one or two chicks.
The sandhill cranes are relatively new to Jackson County, first settling in the Ewing Bottoms in early 1990s. Stanley said the cranes started coming to Jackson County because the population had grown to such a high level, the cranes needed to settle in other areas than just the southern states.
“They’re such interesting birds, very intelligent, unique and very large,” she said.
The birds are about 4 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 7 feet and weight of between 10 to 12 pounds at maturity. As they age, they develop their signature red forehead.
They have a long lifespan for a bird, Stanley said. Two years ago, refuge employees found a deceased bird that was banded and sent the band in. It revealed the bird was 30 years old.
“That’s some of the oldest they’ve found,” Stanley said.
It’s hard to tell the difference in the gender of a sandhill crane by simply looking at one. Gender is determined more by behavior, she said.
“The males dance more to try to impress a potential mate,” she said.
The dances are an elaborate series of displays, including bowing, back arching, stick tossing, jumping and bill touching.
“Right now is a time for courtship, so you should see them dancing today,” Stanley said.
Stanley said the dancing is not always for courtship but can be for socializing and relieving stress.
Melanie McKittrick of Columbus and her husband, C.W., brought their daughter, Willow, to the event for the craft and presentation portion of the event.
“It’s a great day to get out as a family and enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I think the mass group of them is interesting and the fact they’ve found an area they like here over the years.”
Melanie said it was important to expose their daughter to wildlife and nature in general.
“Children don’t get out as much as they should, and we’re really grounded and enjoy nature and wildlife a lot,” she said. “We love to teach her about the wildlife, why they’re here, what they eat and everything we can learn.”
The Wilsons said they enjoyed the presentation on the cranes following the event and said they planned to look for flocks on the way home.
“They’re just neat to look at and are so graceful,” Jean said. “I just love looking at them.”
Jean said she wanted to learn more about the birds and feels like the presentation and materials had an abundance of information about one of her hobbies.
“I came here to learn more, and I feel like I did,” she said.
Vital statistics: 10 to 12 pounds, about 4 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 7 feet with a lifespan of up to 30 years.
Description: Red forehead (adults), long and sharply pointed bills, blue-gray feathers, long legs, loud throaty calls.
Current population in Jackson County: About 10,000 (20,000 in December through mid-January).
Migration: Many greater sandhill cranes in Jackson County have already returned to states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and southern Canada. The remainder are expected to migrate as early as this week and into next week. They are expected to be gone by March before returning in October or November.
History: Greater sandhill cranes began settling in Jackson County in the Ewing Bottoms in the early 1990s because of population growth.
Feeding behavior: Waste grain, tubers, insects, caterpillars, snakes, crayfish, frogs and whatever else they can find in wetlands.