Each spring, tens of thousands of greater sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis tabida) and several thousand lesser sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis canadensis) migrate through Colorado. Like clockwork, for a few weeks before and after the spring time change, they stop to rest and feed at 'staging areas' in the San Luis Valley near Alamosa and Monte Vista, as well as near Steamboat Springs in northern Colorado. The Monte Vista Crane Festival is held each year in mid-March because these natural time-keepers are so reliable, regardless of the weather (it was finger-numbing cold the morning I took the image below, at about 17 degrees!). In Steamboat Springs, the Yampa Valley Crane Festival is held in the early fall as the birds head back to the south for the winter.
These long-legged wading birds are mainly herbivorous, eating wheat, corn and other grains, but they'll supplement their diet with insects, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and snails. The Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge complex provides the safety, wetlands, and feed they need as they migrate between their winter range in and around the Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico and their breeding grounds further north.
Sandhill cranes mate for life, but are social birds, being very comfortable in groups of thousands while migrating, although much of the year they remain in smaller family groups. A group of sandhill cranes is not necessarily called a 'flock.' They can also be called a 'construction', a 'dance', a 'sedge', a 'siege', or a 'swoop' of cranes. I personally like the flow of mental imagery from saying "There's a swoop of cranes," as they fly overhead, preparing to touch down among the many already on the ground. The problem is, that term doesn't really describe them very well once they're grounded; but then, at least for me, neither do any of the other terms.
Sandhill cranes are quite vocal; the mated pairs will "talk" to each other, standing close together and calling in unison. These complex duets can be used to distinguish particular mated pairs. It's been noted that the female often initiates the calling display and makes two calls for each one made by the male. (Hmmm, some stereotypes never seem to go away!) All cranes will raise and duck their heads, 'dance' by hopping and flapping their wings, and sometimes tossing bits of vegetation or sticks in the air. This may be a dominance or bonding display.
Females are generally slightly smaller and a few pounds lighter than the males. Greater sandhill cranes are about 50% larger than the Lesser sandhill cranes, and usually have brighter red forehead patches. These patches are skin and grow slightly as the bird ages. The juveniles of both species don't begin to develop these bare patches until they've molted a couple of
times. Greater sandhills are normally an attractive slate gray, but will preen with mud, which colors their feathers reddish-brown. Because this behavior is most common during the nesting season, it's possible it helps to camouflage the birds. They nest on the ground, usually close to or surrounded by water, and are therefore more vulnerable to predators, even though they hide their nest and are very careful while tending it and the chicks. It does seem as if they are expanding their nesting range within Colorado, with some nesting pairs noted in the far west of the state.
The favored staging areas within and around National Wildlife Refuge lands means that wherever there are sandhill cranes, there are dozens of other bird and animal species to be seen -- geese, ducks, hawks, coyotes, rabbits, deer, elk and many others. Many of the bird species are making their spring migration as well. The air was filled with the croaky call of the cranes as they danced and sang duets; geese honking as they flew, landed and fed nearby; and the trills of redwing blackbirds in the wetlands. It's both cacophony and a wonderful orchestra at the same time.
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