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Wild Thursday: Sandhills by the decade

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Ryan Chew dug through some data on sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski, data that strongly suggests we are not hearing or seeing things: Sandhills have truly rebounded around Chicago outdoors.


To set this up, Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area is the great gathering place for sandhill cranes a bit southeast of Valparaiso, Ind. (I snapped the cranes above some years ago on a bike ride with my oldest boy during a Lions Club fundraiser, the Crane Cruise.)

I am glad Chew, owner of Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, has some time on his hands, until the season opens and found this..

I found his findings very interesting, and they matter because sandhills have become one of the most important signs of seasonal changes. Here is his note:


In one your column, you quoted a reader who felt that sandhill cranes had been migrating in numbers over Chicagoland "always", but we just hadn't been in the right places to hear them.

I hate to challenge his nostalgic memories, but the reality is very different. Jasper Pulaski has been the staging ground for nearly the entire eastern population for decades. Through the 1900's, there was no significant group of eastern Sandhills that didn't use Jasper Pulaski. And here are some relevant fall numbers at Jasper Pulaski:

1942 - 135 cranes
1968 - 2,700 cranes
1978 - 13,000 cranes
2009 - 14,500 cranes

(historical data from an article at; 2009 data from the IN DNR website).

For many wild species, habitat loss has been the biggest factor causing declines. For cranes, there is no question that hunting was an enormous source of mortality that pushed the eastern population close to extinction, and even after prohibitions were enforced, it took decades for the population to recover. Your correspondent's father didn't hear cranes 40 years ago because there weren't nearly as many cranes, and they hadn't shaken off the secrecy they'd learned through years of being shot at. On the other hand, it's money from hunters that finances sanctuaries like J-P.

Ryan Chew
Chicago River Canoe & Kayak

Chew was responding to John Vukmirovich's theory (in the Sun-Times outdoors page on Sunday and originally posted here at Stray Casts)

Chew's numbers are solid, but I think Vukmirovich's main point--we are better at noticing sandhills, and smarter about it--also holds.

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relevant Fall numbers is a misleading statistic...

Each spring, Sandhill Cranes stop at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area on their way to their breeding grounds to the north. They begin arriving in late February, and will continue to move through until the second week of April. On any particular day during that period, from 4,000 to 7,000 birds can be expected at the park.

During the fall migration, some 12,000 to 16,000 Cranes make Indiana their home. The highest population estimate of 32,000 individuals occurred in the 1991 migratory season.

Sandhill Crane Population Estimate
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area:
- November 15, 2006: 15,456
- November 8, 2006: 14,000
- October 18, 2006: 8,200
- November 24, 2004: 24,000
- November 20, 2003: 17,524
- October 9, 2002: 8,813
- November 6, 2001: 15,282
- October 25, 2001:10,000
- October 3, 2001: 4,043
- November 9, 2000: 13,000
- October 13, 2000: 11,666
- September 22, 2000: 1,000
- September 29, 1999: 6,500
- November 19, 1998: 13,430
- October 15, 1998: 12,000
- September 28, 1998: 1,000
- November 26, 1997: 19,642
- November 19, 1997: 27,642
- November 12, 1997: 15,000
- November 5, 1997: 12,000
- October 29, 1997: 12,542
- October 15, 1997: 7,500
- October 8, 1997: 6,000 to 8,000

The numbers cited might be accurate for any one given day, but not for the yearly migration and stop-over at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area.

Those numbers are really interesting. One word of caution, though. The Sandhills are pretty much a sure thing in the middle of their spring and fall stopovers. But you can't take the duration of their stay for granted:

>They begin arriving in late February, and will continue to move through until the second week of April.

Spurred by Dale's post, I thought I'd go over yesterday March 28th), partly because I'm interested in whether they dance more actively in the spring. After all, they're at J-P just before breeding season.

Alas, doing some extensive driving in the area, and being at Goose Pasture (the normal sunset gathering point) at 5:30 and again from 6:00 to 6:30, I couldn't find a single sandhill crane. I do know to look at the treeline on the far side of Goose Pasture for any birds heading directly to the marsh roost. Still nothing.

Next year, I'll make sure I go in late Feb/early March. By the way, does anyone know whether they use different habitat in the spring, or are they still combing through the picked over cornfields?

My wife has been seeing flocks in the fields near Wheatfield for several weeks now, when she drives down to see the grandkids - usually sees them early in the morning.

She also stated that drivers should be aware of their surroundings during late evening drives in that ares...on several occassions she's observed large herds of deer casually walking across the highway (rt.49) near the Kankakee River.

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This page contains a single entry by Dale Bowman published on March 25, 2010 3:23 PM.

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