“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness… When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” – Aldo Leopold
You’re standing in a sagebrush plain , staring in awe at the Sawtooth Mountain range, when suddenly a pair of primitive looking creatures fly above your head. Was it a man? Was it a plane? No, it was the one and only Sandhill Crane!
Sandhill cranes are a beautiful species. They are among the oldest bird species on earth, with fossils dating back at least two million years.They are also famous for their annual migration across the North American continent, which is viewed by millions of people. It’s hard to not appreciate these animals when you see them. The average height of an adult sandhill crane is three to four feet tall, with a wingspan of over five feet. On top of their intimidating size, they have a bright red crown that contrasts with the rest of their grey-white bodies
So, how does the Sawtooth National Recreation Area fit into this story? The trumpeting sounds of sandhill cranes heard overhead in the valley is a sign that the long, bitter winter is coming to an end. The population that returns here each spring traveled south to Texas, New Mexico, Mexico, and Arizona in mid/late October or November. The cranes you see here resting and feeding along rivers and wetlands have returned to their breeding grounds for summer to mate before they embark on their long journey again in the fall.
Cranes are romantic creatures, mating for life and only seeking out a new partner if one of them dies. This is why you will often see sandhill cranes flying or feeding in pairs. As cranes are beginning their migration back to Idaho, single cranes will begin pairing up and displaying their spectacular mating behaviors. Their loudest and most distinctive calls are made during mating season. Loud, distinctive bugle calls can be heard from the sagebrush plains or high up above from up to 2.5 miles away!
Outside of mating, these social creatures have at least eighteen different vocalizations used to communicate with their mates or other members of their flock. Once a pair has mated, they sing to strengthen their bond and protect their territory. This unison call is performed by the pair as they stand side by side. The male raises his head and releases his section of the duet, a short single note. The female follows with 2-3 shorter calls with her head raised at a 45 degree angle. This song is repeated until the duet has served its purpose, bonding the life-long pair.
Although Sandhill Cranes are well known for their excellent singing voices, their dance rituals are the real star of the show. The dances are most common during the breeding season, but they are known to dance all year round, meaning you may be lucky enough to experience this display during your visit here. Once a male crane has grabbed the attention of a female, they begin the dance with a low bow. This quickly escalates to a synchronized spectacle of jumping, wing-spreading, and feet thrown forward. They may pluck sticks or plants off the ground to throw into the air for dramatic effect. The pair will elegantly bow to each other once again before repeating this series of movements.
The sandhill cranes beauty and spectacular mating rituals have left humans in awe for hundreds of years. We are so lucky to have them back this spring/ summer here in the Sawtooth Valley for us to enjoy. While you are exploring sagebrush plains or wetlands along the Salmon River, take a moment to listen for their piercing calls or low purrs. Stand tall, speak with pride, and dance like a Sandhill Crane!
Emma is a seasonal naturalist for the Summer 2022 season at SIHA. She is originally from Virginia, so she has been very excited seeing these birds in the wild for the first time! This summer she hopes to hike, paddle board, and continue listening for sandhill crane calls.