A caravan of vehicles carrying birdwatchers traveled the rural backroads of eastern Jackson County on Saturday.
The people in those vehicles were hoping to get a closer look at the thousands of sandhill cranes that have spent this winter living in south central Indiana.
The birds are easy to spot and even easier to hear because of the rattling bugle call they make as they communicate with each other. It’s a sound that can be heard quite often this time of year, even in Seymour, as the cranes either flock to wet meadows and fields or fly overhead.
Annual visits by migrating sandhill cranes became a regular occurrence in Jackson County in the 1990s. They first started stopping in the Ewing Bottoms area along the East Fork White River, west of Brownstown. They can now be spotted in many places, including at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge and in fields both north and south of Seymour.
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The visits used to be brief during the fall migration south and the migration to the north in late winter, but the sandhill cranes began wintering here about five years ago, likely because there is an abundance of food in the fields and the winters have become milder.
“We want to educate people, both locals and from further away, about sandhill cranes,” said Donna Stanley, a park ranger at the refuge, just east of Seymour.
On Saturday, the refuge devoted much of the day to accomplishing that goal during its Celebration of Cranes event.
The morning started off with a guided tour, and there also were activities for children and a program about sandhill cranes.
“Any time you can go to one of these (events) with a ranger is always a good chance to learn things,” said Don Anderson, a Cincinnati native visiting the refuge for the tour.
Anderson and his wife own property in both Florida and Bedford and have seen sandhill cranes at both locations.
“They only have the lesser ones down in Florida and Alabama,” Stanley said of the two types of sandhill cranes.
The greater sandhill cranes are the ones that have been spending the winter here.
Greater sandhill cranes stand about 4 feet tall, while lesser sandhill cranes are a little shorter.
Stanley said everyone should learn about the sandhill cranes, even locals who have been seeing them for years, because they are “very intelligent and quite social birds.”
She said the sandhill cranes are not harmful to the environment because they only eat waste grain, tubers, insects and small aquatic life, such as frogs, they find in the wetlands.
“We get people who call saying they see a crane in their yard or field and want to know if it’s OK to let their dog or cat out or to go outside (themselves), and we reassure them they are harmless,” Stanley said.
Though not spotted during Saturday’s tour, whooping cranes, which are listed as endangered, often can be spotted among the thousands of sandhill cranes when they congregate during the day in fields in the area.
Whooping cranes are white and should have colored bands on their legs as they accompany the sandhill cranes on their migration from the south to the north. The bands are to track the whooping cranes, who number about 300, through Operation Migration.
The birdwatchers did find many sandhill cranes and other birds in the area during the guided tour, but their numbers were not on par with other years or even previous weeks, Stanley said.
“Cranes can be a big tourist attraction, and Jackson County could see more tourism if people become aware of the birds’ migration and nesting habits,” Stanley said.
Sharon Barnett of Seymour attended the tour and said she enjoyed the time spent outdoors.
“It’s a great way to learn,” Barnett said. “My dad loved birds, and I sort of got that from him.”
Barnett said she wanted to see the cranes up close and had seen some here and there throughout the years. The tour gave her the chance to see more than she has probably seen in most of her life, she said.
“I wanted to see them dancing. I’ve heard about it and thought it sounded fascinating,” she said.
Stanley said cranes mate for life and stay in family groups. The females have one or two babies, known as colts, each year. They like to roost with just their toes covered with water, and they spend the night in shallow water.
As a part of their social behavior, the birds “dance,” displaying an elaborate show of bowing, back arching, stick tossing, jumping and hopping.
“The dancing is a social thing they do to relieve tension, bond with family and as part of the courting process,” Stanley said.
Barnett said she learned things about the cranes she planned to take back to her students at the Seymour Middle School Sixth Grade Center.
“Hopefully, I can impart a small bit of what I’ve learned to them,” she said.
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Wingspan: 5 to 8 feet
Feed on: Waste corn, small aquatic life, insects, caterpillars
Height: Can grow as tall as 5 feet