Category Archives: Cranes

Imprinting Error

In 2011 crane watchers in Homer, Alaska noticed that a single Canada goose was convinced he was a sandhill crane. How did this happen? And can it be undone?

As described by Encyclopedia Britannica, imprinting is a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object it sees, hears, or is touched by and thereafter follows that object.

Imprinting is especially important for nidifugous birds — species that walk away from the nest shortly after hatching — because they must immediately follow their mother in order to survive. They imprint by sight and the lesson lasts a lifetime. If the first thing they see is their mother or another member of their own species, life is good. If not, they grow up believing they are another species and will never find a mate.

Imprinting happens at different times for different species so wildlife centers use surrogacy techniques, described here at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, to insure that baby birds don’t imprint on humans. If they do they cannot be released in the wild.

Human imprinting is well known among cranes so caregivers in the Whooping Crane Recovery Program dress in crane costumes when in sight of the young birds.

Whooping crane costume worn by biologists (photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS)

Birds use filial imprinting but there are other forms. Studies have shown that we humans prefer the first computer software we use and then compare all new software to that first and favorite app. It’s a form of imprinting called Baby Duck Syndrome. “I don’t like this; it doesn’t work like Microsoft Word.” Quack! Quack!

As for the Canada goose in the video, observers speculated that the bird’s mother laid his egg in sandhill crane nest. When he hatched he saw a sandhill crane and imprinted on the wrong species. He’s the victim of an imprinting error.

(video by Nina Faust on YouTube. photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

Cranes: The Great Migration

Sandhill cranes at the Platte River, Nebraska (photo by USFWS via Wikimedia Commons)

When I saw forty sandhill cranes near Volant, Pennsylvania on Monday, I thought of the time I saw 500,000 in Nebraska in March 2004. Half a million sandhill cranes are a breathtaking, exhilarating, stupendous experience! It has to be seen in person. Here’s what it’s like.

Every spring the cranes leave their wintering grounds in Mexico and Texas to converge on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. Their numbers peak in March when 80% of all the sandhill cranes on Earth are there.

Map of sandhill crane spring migration in the central flyway (linked from Visit Grand Island website)

Cranes are drawn to this location because the Platte is still “a mile wide and an inch deep” between Lexington and Grand Island. The water is shallow enough to roost in overnight and there’s abundant plant food in local wetlands and waste corn in the cattle fields(*). The cranes spend three to four weeks fattening up for their 3,000 mile journey to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

At dusk and dawn they move to and from the Platte River in spectacular numbers. Their sight and sound is amazing, especially when you’re in a bird blind near the action. They dance with their mates and jump for joy.

I saw their great migration in late March 2004. Before my trip I booked dusk and dawn visits to the bird blinds at the Platte, then I flew to Omaha and drove west to Grand Island and Kearny (pronounced Karney). I didn’t mind the 2.5 hour drive because I wanted to see a piece of the Great Plains and experience this: For over 100 miles there are no cranes at all then suddenly, just as I-80 approaches the Platte River, the sky is filled with them. I’d arrived!

I saw hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes at dusk and dawn and spent my days at local birding hotspots where my highlights were white pelicans, burrowing owls, lapland longspurs, and a Harris’ sparrow. I had hoped to see a whooping crane but I was too early that year. (Whoopers leave Texas later than the sandhills.)

This 8-minute video from The Crane Trust gives you another view of the spectacle.

Nothing can beat the sandhill cranes’ migration in Nebraska in March! Don’t miss it!

For information on seeing the cranes’ migration visit Nebraska Flyway‘s website with links to Sandhill Viewing, lodging and food, brochures and maps.

(photo credits: cranes at the Platte from Wikimedia Commons, map of crane migration linked from Visit Grand Island, click on the captions to see the originals. YouTube video by The Chicago Tribune)

(*) There’s a connection between beef and cranes: Half a million sandhill cranes get enough to eat in Nebraska because there’s leftover corn in the cattle fields. There are more cattle than humans in Nebraska.

The Original Crane

Common cranes, Grus grus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common cranes, Grus grus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In my ongoing exploration of the Birds of Europe I encountered a crane that resembles our sandhills.

Eurasian or common cranes — often called just “cranes” — are native to Europe, Asia and Africa.  Their scientific name Grus grus indicates they were the first crane named by Linnaeus.  He would have seen them in summer in his homeland, Sweden, but couldn’t know about sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) until Europeans sent him specimens from the Americas.

The Eurasian crane is taller than a sandhill with black and white on his neck and face.  The closeups below provide a good comparison, first the Eurasian crane, then the sandhill.

Closeup of Eurasian crane (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of Eurasian crane (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sandhill crane (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sandhill crane (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Do these two species ever meet?  Maybe.

Eurasian cranes breed across Europe to northern Russia and Asia, as shown below.

Range map of the Eurasian crane (map from Wikimedia Commons)
German range map of the Eurasian crane (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Sandhill cranes are confined to North America except for a subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, that breeds in Alaska and has jumped the Bering Sea to northeastern Russia.  USGS estimates that more than 10,000 lesser sandhill cranes now breed in Russia.

Some sandhill cranes breed in Russia (map from USGS)
Some lesser sandhill cranes breed in Russia (map from USGS)

The two areas look disjoint on the maps but you never know.   Perhaps the “original” crane will meet ours some day.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

*In 2016 the scientific name of the sandhill crane was changed to Antigone canadensis Whooping cranes are still in the Grus genus.


Sandhill cranes in western Pennsylvania, 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Sandhill cranes in western Pennsylvania, 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Yesterday five of us traveled north to the Volant Strips in Lawrence County to find a northern shrike and short-eared owls.

What we hadn’t expected was a huge flock of 112 sandhill cranes!  The total rose to 124 when we saw 12 in a later part of our trip.

This wintering flock is the largest I’ve ever seen outside of Nebraska.

In the end, we saw the shrike and two short-eared owls but they couldn’t match the wonder of so many sandhill cranes.  🙂


(photo by Steve Gosser, 2015)

Lift Every Voice And Sing

Pair of sandhill cranes calling (photo by Shawn Collins)

Though this photo could have been taken in Wisconsin it’s actually from Crawford County, Pennsylvania where a few sandhill cranes hang out near Miller’s Pond.

Sandhills breed in northwestern Pennsylvania so right now they’re calling and courting.  Here’s what a pair of cranes sounds like. Not exactly melodic, but they put a lot of spirit into it.


Life every voice and sing!
Pair of sandhill cranes crowing (photo by Shawn Collins)


(photos by Shawn Collins)

Counting Cranes

Sandhill cranes in northwest Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

Pennsylvania counts!  We have so many sandhill cranes that we’re now part of US Fish and Wildlife’s eastern Fall Crane Survey.

Sandhill cranes are much more common out west but the eastern population has grown to 60,000 birds.  They used to be rare in Pennsylvania where our first crane was noted in the late 1980’s, first breeding was recorded in 1993 in Lawrence County, and the first photograph of a nest was in 2009.  Sandhills have now been spotted in more 30 Pennsylvania counties — nearly half the state!

This is your opportunity to make history.  Put your name, location, count, date and time on record.  It’s significant if you visit a likely crane place and don’t find any.  Yes, even ZERO counts.

Here are links and tips on what, where, when and how from the PABIRDS announcement by Lisa Williams, PGC:

  • What to count.  Tips on what a crane looks like and how to recognize a juvenile crane.  (Is it flying? Cranes keep their necks and legs stretched out when they fly.)
  • Where to count: Look for cranes in wetlands and nearby agricultural settings. Cranes often forage in shallows and mud flats along lakes, ponds, and swamps or in nearby agricultural fields and pastures, but they can be found in a variety of odd sites during migration.   (Pittsburgh birders: visit Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford counties)
  • When:  Sunday, October 27 through Saturday, November 2.  Ideal dates are October 29-31.  Counts are best conducted just after sunrise or just before sunset when birds are concentrated in their roost sites. (It’s easier to find cranes at that time of day, anyway.)
  • How to count and how to submit your data.

After you practice on cranes, you’re ready to count crows.  😉

(photo by Steve Gosser)


Which Ones Are Cranes?

When people see a bird that impresses them they often tell me about it.  Sometimes they say, “I saw a crane” and I wonder… was it a crane or something else?   So I’ve made this conundrum into a quiz.

Which of these are cranes?  All of them?  Some of them?  Only one of them?  And which one is non-native?

(The answers are in the comments.)








(photos #1, #2 and #3 by Steve Gosser, photo #4 from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. As usual I’ll wait to release comments from moderation so that early responders don’t give away the answer.


Ten Birds Learn to Migrate

video from Assignment Earth on YouTube

20 October 2011

Ten of the most endangered birds in North America are making their first migration now.

Whooping cranes are so rare that there are less than 600 of them on earth: 162 are in captivity, 44 are non-migratory and approximately 278 nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and migrate to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Texas. The rest spend the summer in Wisconsin and migrate to Florida on a route they learned from ultralite aircraft.

Back in 1941 whooping cranes nearly went extinct. In the wild their population had dwindled to only 15 migratory birds (21 total) so scientists and crane lovers began a captive breeding program to bring them back.  The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) works to reintroduce them to their eastern range.

Like many animals, whooping cranes imprint on the creature that raises them from babyhood.  In the wild that would be their parents, but in a captive breeding program where adult birds are unavailable humans must dress in crane costumes and use mute gestures so the young birds learn to be cranes.

Thankfully the program increased the eastern whooping crane population but the new birds were non-migratory.  Since cranes learn to migrate from their parents who would teach them?  Enter the ultralite.

Ultralite aircraft are like kites with motors, just a little larger than the humans who fly them.  The first ever whooper-ultralite migration occurred in Idaho in 1997.  Before leading endangered eastern whoopers, pilots Bill Lishman and Joe Duff practiced by leading young Canada geese and sandhill cranes.  In 2001 Operation Migration they led the first group of young whoopers from Necedah NWR, Wisconsin to Chassahowitza NWR, Florida.

The young cranes memorize the route on their way south and fly back to Wisconsin on their own in the spring.  By now there are adult cranes who know the route so WCEP has a Direct Autumn Release project which releases some of each year’s young with the Wisconsin adults so they learn to migrate by following them.

The video above from the mid-2000’s tells the whoopers’ migration story.  Shortly after this video was made, 17 of the 18 whoopers from the 2006 fall migration were killed by violent storms that hit the wildlife refuge one night in February 2007.  The 18th died three months later.  Fortunately this was the only tragedy of its kind but it underscores how vulnerable small populations can be.

This year’s cohort of 10 young cranes began their journey on October 9 at White River Marsh Wildlife Area, Wisconsin and are headed for St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve, Florida.  So far they’ve made little progress because strong gusty winds have kept them grounded for days.  This week they were still at stopover #1!

Follow their journey here on the Operation Migration field journal.  Click here for a video from the ultralite’s perspective.  (You may want to turn the sound down; the ultralite motor is loud.)

Learn more at Journey North’s Whooper page.

(video from Assignment Earth via YouTube)