Sandhill Cranes
December 2003
By Michael Ellis

Every December for the past two decades I have made a pilgrimage to my very own Mecca. The holiday or should I say it correctly – “Holy Day” – season is not complete unless I have spent at least a couple of weekends leading trips in the northern Sacramento Valley. Immediately adjacent to the thousands of vehicles streaming along Interstate 5, are uncountable numbers of birds. They have escaped the harsh winters of the far north and are feeding, flocking, flying, and at least in the case of the ducks, finding mates.

It is easy to see a half a million birds in one day! But my winter foray is not complete until I hear the call of the sandhill cranes. These skinny, four feet tall gangly birds are one my favorites. There are 6 races of this bird in North America and in California we can see both the lesser and the Greater sandhill crane. There are 15 different kinds of cranes in the world and nearly all of them are threatened with extinction. The Japanese revere the crane as a symbol of good fortune and long life. In ancient Greece they were considered messengers from the gods and humans imitated the dance of the cranes as a tribute to Apollo.

The closest and easiest place for Bay area dwellers to see Sandhill Cranes is over near Lodi, at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. There can be hundreds of cranes feeding in the dry fields. It is fun to watch them dance, awkwardly leaping high into the air, flapping their wings and going nowhere. The dance is associated with breeding and reinforcing the pair bond but in the winter it is just a way to blow off steam.

But the call, ahh the call. The sound can be heard for several miles. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that is shaped like a French horn. The air sacs inside the breast of the bird act as a resonator, similar to the resonating board of a violin.

Aldo Leopard, an early conservationist, said it best “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective

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