Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge educates the public on cranes


Jackson County is famous for its covered bridges, round barns and railroad history, but there’s one natural attraction that flies high above the rest.

This time of year, people from all over the region flock to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Seymour and low-lying areas in the southern and western parts of the county to catch a glimpse of the beauty of sandhill cranes.

But time is running out to view the birds, as they are beginning to migrate north to their nesting grounds for the spring.

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The cranes, which stand up to 5 feet in height and have wingspans larger than that, usually arrive in southern Indiana in early November and stay through February. It is estimated there are more than 40,000 of the birds in Jackson County during the winter months.

During the day, they spend their time in harvested farm fields, feeding on leftover grain and plant material and small animals such as insects, worms, snakes and mice. At night, they often make their way to the refuge’s protected wetlands.

On Saturday, the refuge took time to educate people about the birds and highlight their unique characteristics during its annual Celebration of Cranes event.

Visitors had the opportunity to take a guided vehicle tour of known locations for viewing sandhill cranes. Kids also could make their own paper sandhill crane at the refuge’s visitor center.

Park Ranger Donna Stanley said the refuge and county are fortunate to host the birds every year.

“Cranes are such an interesting bird, and they’re so widespread in Jackson County in the winter these days,” she said.

For many local residents, seeing sandhill cranes is as easy as walking out of their homes. Some people have them in fields in their backyards, while others can look up and see them soaring in their familiar V-shaped formations, trumpeting along the way.

Being able to educate the public about the cranes is part of the refuge’s mission, Stanley said.

“We want people to have some understanding of them,” she said. “That they’re not harmful to farm fields, and they’re not going to eat their dogs or cats.”

She also wants people to appreciate how special sandhill cranes are.

“Some of the oldest fossils ever found were of cranes,” she said.

What people don’t know is the birds are very social and quite intelligent, she added.

One of their trademark characteristics is their “dancing,” which involves bowing, back arching, tossing sticks and grass, jumping and touching bills. The dancing has several functions, including socialization, relieving tension and attracting a mate.

“They are exceptional to watch,” she said. “We’re privileged to have this spectacle going on in our backyards.”

Stanley said in Nebraska, there is an annual gathering of cranes that is a huge tourist attraction to the state, drawing people from all over the world. The cranes in Jackson County also bring in people from all over, she added.

Dan Kaiser of Columbus knows a lot about sandhill cranes, as he spends time at Muscatatuck and elsewhere photographing them, but what he really gives a whoop about is whooping cranes, which are federally endangered.

As a member of the International Crane Foundation and an official crane tracker, Kaiser gave a presentation about whooping cranes to a full house Saturday at the refuge visitor center.

If you’re lucky, sometimes you can spot one of the white whooping cranes in Jackson County traveling along with their sandhill crane relatives, he said.

Because the population of whooping cranes in the United States is so low, around 500, the birds are banded so they can be tracked and monitored.

“They are not a very prolific bird,” Kaiser said. “The population was around 35,000 at its height.”

By the 1940s, they were all but extinct with only 16 birds recorded.

They were hunted for their feathers for women’s hats, and their numbers suffered from loss of habitat.

“It has taken 80 years for them to recover,” Kaiser said.

In 2001, a program was started to reintroduce a second population of whooping cranes into eastern North America. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has had some success, Kaiser said.

Scientists help the birds by raising them in isolation, using puppets and donning costumes so the baby birds do not get accustomed to seeing people. Then they train them to follow ultralight aircraft to Florida so they learn the migration route.

“Muscatatuck was a stopover place for the migration,” Kaiser said.

But recent milder winters in the Midwest have kept more whooping cranes around here, he said.

Eighty-six whooping cranes have been spotted over the years in Jackson County.

The biggest danger to them now is predation with 47% of whooping crane deaths a result of being hunted by bobcats or other animals. That is followed by 19% killed by gunshot and about the same amount from impact trauma, such as hitting a power line or vehicle.

“They are still considered very rare,” Kaiser said.

For those interested in viewing sandhill or whooping cranes, Kaiser advises to give the birds space, keeping at least 200 yards between you and the birds if on foot and at least 100 yards in a vehicle.

“We don’t want them getting used to people,” he said.

Bird watchers also should stay hidden and not speak or make loud noises around the birds and should always respect private property, Kaiser added.

Deb Clifford of Seymour was one of the many who came out to hear more about the cranes Saturday.

“I have an interest in cranes because I have sandhill cranes in my backyard between me and the old skating rink,” she said. “Every morning, they’re flying overhead. It took my dog a little while to get used to the noise.”

But Clifford said the calls don’t bother her.

She enjoyed Kaiser’s presentation and said she learned a lot. She plans to research the birds more by visiting the International Crane Foundation website at

Natalie Quisenberry, an eighth-grade science teacher, traveled up from Louisville, Kentucky, to spend the day learning about the cranes. She’s no stranger to Muscatatuck.

“I come up here maybe once every couple of months just to take pictures and hike a little bit,” she said. “I saw that they were having this program and thought it would be entertaining.”

Although she has seen sandhill cranes, she has not been lucky enough to spot a whooping crane yet, she said.

She plans to share the information she learned about the cranes with her students.

“I think it’s important to try to get kids interested in things like this,” she said.

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