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How Sandhill Cranes Defend Their Young
Recently while hiking with Mary and our friend Julianne, we spotted this nesting sandhill crane. Julianne, a Yellowstone naturalist, had seen sandhills nesting at this pond in previous years but then they were absent. Nevertheless, her desire to check this pond just in case they had returned paid off. I took this photo from a distance with a telephoto lens so as to not disturb this bird as it incubated eggs. Though the bird looked our way, it did not leave the nest or change its behavior.
This could be a male or female since both look alike and both sit on the two eggs parents typically produce. These cranes may have travelled a long way to nest on this pond. Some of the sandhill cranes returning to Yellowstone in spring arrive from wintering grounds as far away as southern New Mexico.
We stood silently by this pond and enjoyed some moments watching the crane and listening to a wild concert of delightful melodies from abundant songbirds. As I studied the scene through the telephoto, I wondered how the parents protect their ground-level nest. How do they defend against hungry predators eager to dine on tasty eggs or tender young?
Once back in my office, I dove into some research and found these cranes will have to be ready to defend for quite a while. Their young are at risk of becoming someone else’s meal for at least three months. One month of sitting on the nest will pass before the eggs hatch. Once hatched, two more months will pass before a hatchling (called a colt) will be able to flee by flying.
I was surprised to learn that the crane’s defense of its young begins before the eggs even emerge. A study in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge revealed that the better the parents hide the nest in bulrush and cattails, the better the chance colts will survive. Researchers found that ravens and coyotes, Malheur’s primary predators, attacked obvious nests. Determined coyotes even found some concealed nests. But a nest well hidden kept most young safe.
Of course, this sandhill faces more predators in Yellowstone than it would in Malheur. In addition to coyotes, hungry foxes, wolves, and bobcats roam. In addition to ravens, sharp-eyed eagles and owls scan from the air. To me, this nest looks only partially obscured by surrounding vegetation and might even be obvious from above.
Protecting their nests from ground-based predators and from flying predators requires parental teamwork. Since mated sandhills stay together for life, they have a lot of time to master the use of multiple lines of defense.
First, they employ a predator early warning system using what one expert calls their “spotting scope eyesight.”
Next, they stand guard. While the male helps incubate during daylight, trading places with his mate every two hours or so, during dangerous darkness he’s off nest and on guard. The male is a little bigger than the female but both are formidable. Standing four feet high, they are the tallest birds in Yellowstone, and have a wingspan of over six feet.
Finally, they will fight. If a predator approaches from above, the defending crane will leap into the air and kick the attacker with its feet. If a predator approaches on the ground, the protector will close on the attacker with those big wings spread and that beak at the ready. If that doesn’t push the predator to pause, the crane attacks, kicking, hissing, stabbing with that pointy beak.
Despite all this vigilance and defense, predators take many young. Only one of a pair’s two colts typically survives the two months between hatching and first flight. Only a small percentage of all young cranes survives the nine to ten months needed before separating from their parents.
But even with all those predators taking all those young, this species has endured. Scientists have unearthed sandhill crane fossils that are at least 2.5 million years old and structurally identical to modern sandhill cranes. So this species of bird has had a lot of time to develop and refine ways to protect offspring.
How marvelous that each generation has somehow passed that knowledge to the next so the species can survive.
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My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. My books are also available on Amazon unsigned or as eBook or audiobook.
Photos by Rick Lamplugh