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OUTDOORS: Sandhill cranes are once again making noise in area

For reasons that aren't easy to pinpoint, there is a soaring population of sandhill cranes in the region, which is not good news for everyone, laments columnist
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A sandhill crane soars over the Tiny Marsh.

As a nature-loving kind of guy, I like to think that a report of a species strengthening its population is a good thing.

So often, the story is in the other 'direction', in that one species after another are dwindling to a point of possible extinction. And so it has been a bit of a surprise to watch the ever-growing flocks of sandhill cranes that are passing by, quite noisily, high overhead.

Sandhill cranes are large birds, an adult being a metre-and-a-half high (about human shoulder height). They consist of a lot of leg length, a very wide wing spread, as much neck as leg, and a formidably long dagger-like beak. Holding all this stuff in place is a body about the size of a Canada goose.

However gangly they may sound, watching a crane walk about is a vision of grace and elegance.

For decades, local birdwatchers have always been on the lookout for a migrating sandhill crane to do a fly-past of Simcoe County. Their appearance in this area had been a noteworthy event, and novice ornithologists were tested on their observation skills when asked if the neck was outstretched or curled up when flying.

The reason for this ‘test’ is that great blue herons are about the same size but tend to curl their neck in a S-shape when flying, and when thus observed shatters any hope of calling in a report of a crane.

But something is going on out there. Over the past 10 years or so this species has shown a remarkable increase in its presence. A few showed up at Tiny Marsh (even doing their weird jumping up and about mating dance), then the Coldwater area had small flocks of a dozen or so dropping in.

Fast forward to this year and the sandhill crane migration through Simcoe County hit about 8,000 birds!

Whaaaat? Yeah, like, what is going on? Actually, I don't know (sorry if that disappoints you) but something is in play to have such an increase in a bird species that ranged from rare to uncommon only a short while ago.

Have they shifted their migration route from the central flyway of Saskatchewan and the Dakotas over to the Mississippi flyway that touches on the west side of the Great Lakes? Has their population just plain shot up?

Apparently the flocks of sandhill cranes are now so huge (numbering up to 14,000 birds) entire crop fields are being wiped out with just one visit from these long-legged birdies.

Spring migration means some farmers have to re-plant as the original seeding has been pulled up for crane re-fueling. Fall migration is devastating potato crops as some potatoes are scratched up and exposed to frost, (which when mixed in with good potatoes that are later harvested from deep in the soil results in the whole crop being contaminated and rotting).

That's a real problem. One of the affected farmers in southern Ontario has stated that, "he finds it hard to believe they once appreciated the novelty of the birds as they landed at his farm." 

But now the birds are seen as "the enemy" and efforts are underway to thwart the appetite of hungry cranes. Corn that tastes bad is one option, but apparently massive flocks of Canada geese (also a crop stealing bird) are not fazed by the odd flavour.

A couple of years ago, there was a request to open a fall hunt for these cranes. Such a season occurs in a couple of the western provinces, and Ontario hunters and farmers had been hoping that such an opportunity would also happen here. However, the overseeing government bodies have currently nixed that idea for Ontario.

So where did all these birds come from? A similar situation is developing with other bird species such as the double-crested cormorants, wild turkeys, Canada geese, greater black-backed gulls, and trumpeter swans.

Some were 're-introduced' to the wilds of Ontario, while others have always been out there but, until recently, in low numbers.

While lingering populations of loggerhead shrikes and barn swallows take a nose-dive, why is it that other species are thriving? Unfortunately, there is no short and easy answer.

Some species are adapting to warmer winters and are remaining in southern Ontario, some are altering their migration routes (perhaps due to crop changes on the landscape), some are just having a good ride for now with abundant food for successful rearing of young.

Research is ongoing to better track these and other species, to follow them year-round to see where they go for food, for shelter, for mating, for rearing vulnerable young.

Technology is providing ways to now attach light-weight yet strong transmitters to birds, their flight paths being recorded as 'pings' on receiving towers in both Canada and United States. Like grains of sand on a beach, our collective knowledge is slowing building to reveal a better picture of wildlife behaviours.

I will still marvel at a loudly calling sandhill crane as it flies over, but will balance that sighting with compassion that others may not be enjoying these critters to the same extent.