Wild Files: It’s our Nature

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Valentine’s Day, a day designated for love birds, will be celebrated across the globe on February 14, so let’s look at a bird species that has one lifelong love – the crane. 

Cranes are large, elegant birds and there are 15 species worldwide. The two types of cranes seen in Canada are the whooping crane, which is considered endangered, and the sandhill crane. There are three subspecies of sandhill cranes: Canadian, greater, which are also considered endangered in some parts of British Columbia, and lesser sandhill cranes (which) are the subspecies seen soaring above the unceded territories of the Secwépemc, and Ktunaxa Peoples, and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of B.C.

Sandhill cranes love to hang out in wetlands and build their nest in marshy areas near bodies of water such as the Columbia River. Their name ‘sandhill’ stems from one of habitats, being the Platte River on the edges of Nebraska’s sandhills. 

Their diet consists of seeds, nuts, acorns, leaves, and berries but on occasion they will also eat insects, snails, worms, small reptiles and mammals. Males are called roans, and the females mares, while chicks are referred to as colts. Cranes can have a lifespan of 20 to 50 years in the wild. 

Big birds

Sandhill cranes are recognized by their white cheeks, red foreheads, and long dark pointed bills, but what is impressive is their size.  On average they stand 136 centimetres (cm) tall, their wings span 200 cm, and typically they weigh 5.2 kilograms (kg).

In one fell swoop

A group of cranes coming together can have many names including a construction, a dance, or a swoop. In swoops of over 10,000 sandhill cranes migrate south for the winter. Sandhill cranes, like hawks and eagles, are skilled soarers and can stay in flight for hours and only occasionally flapping their wings. During migration, cranes fly as straight as an arrow, with their head and neck straight in front of them while their legs, and feet point straight behind.

Crane brain

Cranes are thought to be intelligent birds. As chicks or colts, they learn by modelling their mother and other cranes as well. When an adult crane sees one of their predators, such as a hawk or a raccoon, who like to feed on eggs or young ones, they make alarm calls. These calls teach their young about the dangers they will encounter when they become independent. This happens around the age of 10months old. When sleeping the crane stands on one leg with its head under its wing and other leg tucked into its body.

Date dances and love calls

For cranes, ‘dates’ begin with a dance. Cranes perform lively and energetic movements to win the heart of their one true mate. This love dance also includes leaping, bowing, head pumping, wing stretches and loud calls. Both sexes of cranes succumb to these dances.  Not only are these dances the beginning of a courtship for single adults, when in swoops this dance craze becomes contagious, with other cranes joining in. Sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life unless one of the pair passes away, then the surviving crane may partner up again. Cranes mates engage in love calls in unison, together making a complex but in-sync duet.

Good luck and happy cranes

Throughout Asia the crane has been revered as a symbol of happiness and eternal youth. An ancient Japanese legend states that anyone who folds 1000 paper origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane. The sandhill crane is thought to be a great symbol of resilience and persistence among Indigenous Peoples. They are also considered to be omens of good luck.