Birds of Ann Arbor: Sandhill Crane


A sandhill crane opens its mouth to let out a call.

Spring through fall, pairs of sandhill cranes come and go through my neighborhood. Their call is so resounding that I can never tell if it’s reaching my ears from a mile down the road or a short walk through the woods to the marsh — the spot these photos were taken.

It’s hard for me to describe their call. I could compare it to the sound of a brass instrument like a trumpet, but the sound is broken up with a cackling vibrato. This description fails to capture the uniqueness and beauty of it. The male’s call is lower in pitch and one burst of it lasts longer than a female which makes their calls echo off of each other back and forth, creating a symphonic rhythm. It’s a very familiar sound — I’ve grown up hearing it in the distance.

Despite being five feet tall, with a wing span of six feet — making it Michigan’s largest bird — the sandhill crane can often be hard to spot. Their gray body and stealthy walk paint them into the background among tree trunks and shadows. It is the bright red patch surrounding their eyes that sets them apart from the scenery.

I was surprised to learn that his patch of red isn’t feathers, but actually a bald spot exposing red-colored skin. To guard territory, sandhill cranes pump more blood to the bald spot making it extra red to show aggression.

One of my favorite things about sandhill cranes is their confidence. Whenever I encounter them, they don’t dart away like most birds — they stay around. If I get too close they might stalk a couple of feet away, but I’m able to get close enough to observe their elegant movements and habits.

Between their looks, sounds and size, I’ve always compared sandhill cranes to some sort of prehistoric animal, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that they are believed to be the oldest living bird species with fossils dating back to 2.5 million years ago.

Sandhill cranes are found across North America. Wherever I travel, I love hearing them. Their call reminds me of home.