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 http://www.jstor.org/pss/3808412; 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.
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.