Sandhill Crane migration wows city residents
Movement in the past week may be largest in recent memory
The reports started flooding in Nov. 18—Sandhill Cranes were on the move over Chicago. These weren’t just a few reports, or a few cranes. And they weren’t just over forest preserves or the lakefront, either. These were visible from the Willis Tower and downtown high-rises. From neighborhood alleys and pocket parks. Some observers reported a daily count of more than 10,000.
This year’s Sandhill Crane migration appears to be on pace to topple any mythical record that may exist for cranes flying over Chicago. In part this is due to the mighty efforts to resurrect the species after it faced extinction decades ago. It also may have something to do with fierce west winds that sent the birds over the city toward Indiana staging grounds. It might have something to do with a dramatic cold snap that hit the Upper Midwest and sent the cranes south all at once.
Whatever the case, what’s happened here in the past week or so has been a phenomenon. Social media lit up with sightings from hardcore birders and casual observers alike. Here are Sandhill Crane sightings reported in the eBird database this month:
This map doesn’t account for where all the birds were as much as where the observers were, and eBird users at that. Still, it gives us a sense of the path the cranes have been taking, which is more easterly than in other years. Just take a look at November 2019 as a comparison:
The cranes were much farther inland, utilizing areas west of the Des Plaines and Fox rivers as they headed south. I made a comment on Twitter that this might be the biggest movement in modern times.
There wasn’t a whole lot of science behind my statement, other than Minnesota had just tallied a record number of Sandhill Cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also clear that a major expansion in crane numbers has taken place in recent years in the Eastern half of the United States. They’re now routinely nesting in Chicagoland suburbs and seen frequently in backyards, on golf courses, and more.
I’ve been checking the weekly totals at Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area to see if there’s evidence for my hunch that this is a big year. As it turns out, the most recent total—from Tuesday—is at 31,975, which is just shy of the alltime record of 34,629, set in 2002.
If you haven’t seen a flock yet, I suggest listening for them more than anything else. Their rattling, bugle-like call can be heard from miles away. It’s an experience that turns back time to centuries ago. Indeed, cranes are among the oldest extant birds in the fossil record.
As a conservation success for the ages, the annual Sandhill Crane migration is something to look forward to each fall and spring. These sightings over our large urban area are something to treasure, especially in a time when the news for wildlife is so often negative.
Take a look at video of Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski from two years ago: