Song of the Sandhills

Wilder Side of Oakland County


“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wings they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun in the marsh.“ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


Aldo Leopold would smile if he lived today and traveled to the wilder sides of Oakland County. Sandhill cranes have returned to the protected wetlands of Rose Oaks County Park for the 2014 breeding season and their arrival has not been subtle. Shortly after dawn late last week I too was greeted by their distinctive resonating rolling cries that Leopold so eloquently described. It is a sound like none other; a primordial call of wildness that all who love or protect wildness and wildlands cherish. Their duet “unison calls” is a spectacular synchronize song by a mated pair in their established habitat.


April in Michigan is time for their courtship dance, a naturally shared behavior that includes wing-flapping, bowing and jumping –and sometimes stick tossing. And of course song! With nesting season underway the cranes seek out areas further back from trails, hidden within more secluded wetlands away from humans and terrestrial predators. And it is there they create nesting mounds constructed of surrounding vegetation. After the female lays her two eggs the pair takes turns with incubation. One incubates while the other is out feeding. Sandhill cranes are omnivores feeding on grains and seeds and the occasional meadow vole, and as the earth warms, snakes, frogs and large insects join the menu. If crows, raccoons or even a coyote gets too close–the male vigorously defends the nest.

These majestic crimson-capped birds stand four feet tall and have six foot wings spans yet they can hide in plain sight when motionless and silent among the emergent vegetation on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer – Oakland County Parks


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