It’s hard to decide what to love most about sandhill cranes. For starters: They are quite large. Spotting them requires no birding acumen, sophisticated optics, nor a trained ear. They’re like NBA players standing out in a schoolyard. Adult greater sandhill cranes are nearly four feet tall, with a wingspan of 77 inches. Also, they’re great dancers and crazy vocalizers. They’re majestic, graceful, and maybe best of all, not endangered. Sandhills are the most abundant cranes in the world, and their numbers are actually on the rise.
From March through October, sandhill cranes lurk in western Montana valleys. While no fixed spot guarantees a sighting—although you will see them around the meadows of Big Sky—you really only need to keep your eyes open as you drive through the state. “In summer,” says Montana Audubon’s Bo Crees, “their preferred habitat is grasslands close to marshy areas, and along some of our big rivers.” Cranes are also particularly drawn to farms where they feast on post-harvest corn and wheat.
John Parker, who guides bird outings for the Sacajawea Audubon Chapter out of Bozeman, adds, “The highest concentration of breeding cranes is in Gallatin County (home to Big Sky) over to Madison County to the west. You can see scattered breeding pairs during the summer, and in fall, larger groups staging before they take off. If they’re out there, you can’t miss them. They’re like flying dinosaurs.” You might even see cranes dancing. In spring, male juveniles have crucial wooing to do. And although sandhills mate for life, there’s enough spark in those marriages to spur some vigorous courtship among established pairs.
You might see them leaping high in the air, flapping, dipping, swinging their heads, even tossing objects into the air. Sometimes the dancing becomes contagious, spreading throughout a flock.
As for their oratory, the classic Birds of America (1917) describes it wonderfully: “The cry of the Sandhill Crane is a veritable voice of Nature, untamed and unterrified. Its resonance is remarkable and its carrying power is increased by a distinct tremolo effect. Often for minutes after the birds have vanished, the unearthly sound drifts back to the listener, like a taunting trumpet from the underworld.”
Once Montana’s greater sandhills have bred, fledged, and fortified themselves, they fly south to New Mexico for the winter, gathering in flocks of up to 10,000 or more in places like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Imagine it: 10,000 taunting trumpets from the underworld. Heavenly.
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