Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 510-A   December 8, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Few people in Chicagoland have ever seen a crane, unless it was an African or Asiatic kind exhibited in a zoo. Sandhill Cranes, if they ever pass over here on their migrations, always fly at a great height. Whooping Cranes, the only other American species, are perilously near extinction. The long-legged long-necked wading birds that frequent sloughs and marshes in our forest preserves are herons and egrets.

Cranes are very tall, shun civilization, and belong to a different bird family. They fly with their necks stretched out; herons fly with their heads drawn back near the shoulders. Cranes nest in marshes where they build low mounds of aquatic vegetation, and their young are not only clothed with down when hatched, but in a few hours, are running nimbly after the mother. Herons and egrets nest in trees or thickets and their young are born naked and helpless.

Cranes have two remarkable characteristics. One is the wind pipe which, as the bird matures, becomes elongated until the total length is about five feet, with 30 inches or more of it coiled in the keel of the breastbone. That is probably responsible for the great volume and resonance of their weird cries which may be heard for miles. They are also famous for spectacular courtship dances in which the male and female solemnly bow to each other, then leap into the air with waving wings, arched necks, and bills pointing skyward. They do this repeatedly until, as suddenly as it began, the dance is over.

The Whooping Crane, largest of our wading birds, is almost as tall as a man -- length, 49 to 56 inches; wingspread, 76 to 92 inches. Its adult plumage is pure white except for the jet black wing tips. Across each cheek, below the fierce yellow eye, is a heavy black "mustache" of bristle-like feathers. Otherwise the cheeks, forehead and crown are bare, with carmine red skin. The heavy spear-shaped bill is olive green. The long legs and huge feet are black.

Whooping cranes were fairly numerous 150 years ago when they nested as far south as the great marshes in Cook County and northern Indiana. Today only a few survive, including a captive pair in the New Orleans Zoo where they have succeeded in raising youngsters. Most of them winter in the Arkansas Wildlife Refuge, an area of salt marshes and mud flats on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In 1955, after years of search, their summer nesting grounds were discovered in Wood Buffalo National Park, south of Great Slave Lake in northern Canada.

The Sandhill Crane is somewhat smaller -- length, 40 to 48 inches wingspread about 80 inches. The adults, except for the reddish bare skin on their heads, and black legs and feet, are uniformly slaty-gray. Its voice is a deep rolling croak or vibrant honk. Unlike the Whooper, which subsists largely on aquatic animals and aquatic roots and bulbs -- in freshwater or saltwater marshes -- the Sandhill Crane spends much of its time and gets most of its food on dry land: some frogs, snakes, mice and insects but more roots, bulbs and grain. They love corn. Consequently, these big birds are good eating and have been hunted so persistently that they have become very wary and have disappeared from vast areas of grassland where once numerous.

Except for a strain that nests in Florida and Louisiana, they breed from Alaska and northern Canada south to California, Nebraska, and even southern Michigan, where a small colony nests in the Waterloo Recreational Area Refuge.

In the 1840's, large flocks of them were common in Cook County.

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