How the Sandhill Crane Serves as a Spring Sentinel in Park City

Marking season’s change by way of the gracefully distinctive sandhill crane

By Mark Menlove June 1, 2015 Published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Park City Magazine

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With weather patterns being anything but predictable these days, it seems almost futile to mark the changing seasons by a calendar. A more accurate barometer of time’s passage in Park City is the return each spring of sandhill cranes, our largest resident birds, and their departure each fall for wintering grounds along the Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico. 

The sandhill cranes that summer near Park City arrive as the first spears of eager green push through decaying clumps of last year’s grasses. They remain until the season’s young—aptly dubbed colts for their long, gangly legs—are strong enough to fly south in the fall. 

In flight, sandhill cranes glide on six-foot wingspans with long necks and legs extended. On the ground, cranes stalk with gangling yet elegant gaits, pecking the ground for insects, seeds, bulbs, and even frogs or small rodents. But it may be the sandhill cranes’ distinctive flight call—a strident, musical rattle heard rolling across our open spaces—that for many longtime locals signifies the arrival of spring even more significantly than the annual reappearance of these stately birds.

Standing four feet tall, covered with a brownish-gray plumage, and sporting a characteristic patch of bald, red skin at the top of their heads and around the eyes, sandhill cranes are easily recognized and can be seen in almost any of Summit County’s open meadows and wetlands. Swaner Nature Preserve (1258 Center Drive, 435.649.1767, is nearly always a good bet. You can even check-in on nesting cranes (and other wildlife) from the comfort of your own home by checking out the Live Preserve Webcam

These marvelous birds mate for life and often live 20 years or longer, so if you observe the same meadow or wetland from year to year, it is likely you’re seeing the same returning couples. Pairs engage in unison calling, with both the rattling flight call and, on the ground, a more intimate and low-pitched duet of chortles and coos. Sandhill cranes also dance as couples in a sequence of bows, leaps, and turns evolved over millennia to take full artistic advantage of long legs, curved necks, and powerful wings. 

Cranes build nests on the ground or on shallow water and raise one brood per year (another good reason to keep your dog on a lead when traveling near wetlands). Females lay one to three eggs, but often only one chick survives. Both parents share in incubating eggs, and the young colts stay with their parents for nearly a year until the next clutch of eggs is laid. 

Cranes are ancient birds: fossil records, structurally identical to modern sandhill cranes, date back 10 million years, making these magnificent creatures the oldest known bird species. Countless generations of cranes have mated and raised their young in our meadows and wetlands. We can only hope they will return for generations to come. 

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