Cranes are North America’s tallest birds. There are 2 species of cranes that live on this continent–the sandhill (Grus canadensis) and the rare whooping (Grus americana). The former grows to as much as 4 feet tall, while the latter can grow a few inches taller than its cousin.
Top photo is of sandhill cranes; the bottom is of whooping cranes.
Cranes inhabit open environments such as savannahs, marshes, and agricultural fields where they can use their keen eyesight to detect and flee from potential threats. They are omnivorous, feeding upon grains, underground tubers, small vertebrates, shellfish, and insects. Oddly enough, they don’t usually eat fish. They were notorious among pre-Civil War planters for digging up leftover sweet potatoes missed by slave harvesters. Today, they still take advantage of inefficient machine harvesting and feed on leftover grain in farmer’s fields.
Some species of crane has lived in North America for at least 10 million years. A species resembling the extant crowned crane of Africa lived in Nebraska during the Miocene. Its fossils were among those found at the Ashfall Fossil Beds located in that state. Sandhill crane fossils dating to the early Pleistocene (~2 million BP) have been excavated from the Leisey Shell Pits in Florida. Both species of crane are well represented in Florida’s fossil record, and a crane specimen was also excavated from Bell Cave, Alabama.
Both sandhill and whooping cranes were abundant in southeastern North America when Europeans began colonizing the region. John Lawson referred to them as “hoopers” because of the loud sound the whooping cranes make. J.J. Audubon wrote their calls could be heard from 3 miles away, thanks to their 5 foot long vocal cords. Audubon recounts an humorous experience he had when hunting a crane. He was traveling on a boat down the Mississippi River when he spotted a flock of cranes. He jumped off the boat and took a shooting position but was so anxious to show off his marksmanship that he made a bad shot and merely winged one while the rest flew away and escaped. The injured bird couldn’t fly and Audubon began chasing it across the savannah. He trapped it against a fallen long, but the bird spread out its wings and charged him. Audubon, afraid of the long sharp bill, turned around and fled toward the boat with big bird in hot pursuit, a spectacle that caused his companions to laugh heartily. One of his companions saved him by using a paddle to bludgeon the agressive bird to death.
Like all of North America’s most spectacular species, cranes were nearly overhunted into oblivion. Hunters especially desire cranes because they are a delicacy known as “ribeye of the sky.” I’ve never had the chance to eat crane, but I have tried ostrich and it tastes exactly like beef tenderloin, therefore I think “flying filet mignon” might be a more accurate nickname. Reportedly, crane meat is lean but ribeye is a very fatty cut of steak. (If it was up to me, all ribeye steaks would be ground into hamburger–that’s all this cut is good for.)
The good taste of crane meat almost doomed whooping cranes to extinction. Whooping cranes completely disappeared from eastern North America–the last sighting of this species in Georgia was on St. Simon’s Island in 1885. The entire population fell to just 15 birds, but with federal protection the western population has increased to 270 birds. They summer in Wood Buffalo National Park Canada, and they winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. An attempt to establish a second western population failed because the birds were hatched using sandhill cranes as surrogate parents. The whooping cranes in this experimental population imprinted on sandhill cranes and wouldn’t mate with their own kind. An attempt to re-establish an eastern population has been more successful. There are now 104 whooping cranes that summer in Necedes National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin and winter in St. Marks NWR, Florida (which I visited last summer. See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/wakulla-springs-shellpoint-beach-and-the-st-marks-wildlife-refuge/). Scientists used hand puppets resembling whooping cranes to rear the founders of this population, and they got them to imprint on fixed winged aircraft that led them on a migration to their winter habitat. This population is currently unsustainable because a species of biting black fly is preventing the birds from having successful nesting. Researchers hope to move the cranes to a different area of Wisconsin where this species of fly doesn’t live.
Whooping cranes following fixed wing aircraft they imprinted on.
Sandhill cranes populations are in much better shape than those of their cousins, though they have been much reduced compared to their former abundance. A year round population of sandhill cranes lives in south Georgia and Florida. This population is augmented by winter migrants that spend summers in northern states and Canada. Some nothern migrants also winter in Louisiana and Texas. Last year, Tennessee opened a hunting season on sandhill cranes. When I first heard about this, I thought it was a mistake, but I changed my mind. An estimated population of 87,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Tennessee but the state only issued a total of 1200 permits, and to be eligible, hunters have to take a coarse proving they can tell the difference between a sandhill crane and the rare protected whooping crane. I doubt such a conservative limit will put much of a dent in the population. Moreover, sandhill cranes are difficult to approach and not every hunter is guaranteed to bag one.
Andrew Zimmern and the hunters who bagged a sandhill crane for an episode of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.
I like Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods. However, I take issue with the excuse he used when justifying his hunt for sandhill cranes. He joined some hunters in Tennessee in order to bag one for his show. He claimed the birds ravaged farmer’s fields and drove away ducks and geese. Supposedly, these factors were a sound reason for controlling their numbers. This is pure bullshit. Farmers have already harvested most of their crops by late fall–the time of year when cranes travel through Tennessee. Ducks and geese co-existed with cranes for millions of years before man ever entered North America. Hunting cranes is not a necessary policy for managing their numbers. Why can’t Zimmern just be honest and admit he wants to kill the birds because they taste good?
Another pet peeve I have is hunters who claim they are “harvesting” an animal. Harvest means picking an apple or an ear of corn. Using the word “harvesting” as an euphemism for killing is just dishonest. To “harvest” an animal usually means shooting it, and I’m pretty sure the animal feels lots of pain when the bullet or shotgun pellets are tearing through their nerves. I’m not against hunting for food. I enjoy the flavor of wild game meat and would eat nothing but this healthy alternative, if I had the opportunity. Why can’t people just be honest about it? Hunting is killing…not “harvesting.”