Wayne County ideal for rebound of sandhill crane

Wayne County ideal for rebound of sandhill crane

It’s not often a well-developed, significantly populated area lands bragging rights as the epicenter of a wildlife comeback story, but at this particular moment, Wayne County could call itself the Sandhill Crane Capital of Ohio. Not only is it No. 1, but according to the results of the fourth annual Midwest Crane Count, it outpaces the first runner-up, Lucas County, by nearly 90%.

There are certainly a few great reasons for this local success, but first let’s talk about this spectacular creature — 106 of which appear to be calling Wayne County their home.

The sandhill crane, a native wading bird that stands 3-4 feet tall and sports a wingspan of nearly 7 feet, was entirely driven out of our state by the end of the 1920s. Blame rested firmly on the triple threat of habitat loss, over hunting and continued human disturbance. Thankfully, although extirpated from Ohio, the species maintained fragmented populations in other parts of the North American continent.

Capable of extremely long migrations from the southern tips of both Florida and Texas to well within the Arctic, sandhills can cover 500 miles in a single day while traveling at high altitudes with favorable winds. We can be thankful that sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a pair of birds decided the Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area on the border of Wayne and Ashland counties seemed promising enough to set up housekeeping. They were the first nesting pair in Ohio in at least 60 years.

Both the Funk Bottoms and Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Areas are managed by the Division of Wildlife for waterfowl hunting and therefore present ideal habitat for the ground nesting omnivores. Nearby fields filled with worms, insects and grain residue compliment a diet that also includes amphibians, birds and small mammals such as the ubiquitous meadow vole.

In flight the sandhill crane can be quickly distinguished from the similarly sized blue heron by merit of the crane’s extended neck. Herons fly with their necks tucked in an “S” shape. Herons also have an interesting wingbeat for local flight. I’d characterize it as a flap-flap-flap-glide as opposed to a constant rhythm. Another great identifier is the almost comical call of the sandhill — imagine a tree frog playing a trumpet. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.

At this time of year, hatchlings are just emerging. Sandhills typically incubate a pair of eggs, and both parents remain to supervise the activities of the precocial young that are up and out of the nest as early as eight hours after hatching. The young are quite a site and present themselves as leggy, gawky teenagers next to the large, rusty-gray, red-crowned parents. Look for these families at the point in any field that seems the very furthest from anything else. Sandhills like to put large, flat expanses between themselves and any cover that might conceal danger as their first option for self-protection while the young as yet to fledge are walking rapidly away at any hint of trouble.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of this amazing comeback story this summer, just wait until fall to catch them in the sky. Your odds are getting better all the time.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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