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An up-close encounter with the largest birds in Michigan

Sandhill Cranes are Michigan's largest birds.
Michigan DNR
Sandhill Cranes are Michigan's largest birds.

As summer shifts to fall, some birds in northern Michigan are preparing for their annual migration. For Sandhill Cranes, that means putting on a little extra weight to help fuel their move.

Brian Allen, a lifelong birder from Manistee, serves on the Board of Directors of the Save Birds Through Habitat.
Leslie Hamp
Interlochen Public Radio
Brian Allen, a lifelong birder from Manistee, serves on the Board of Directors of the Save Birds Thru Habitat.

Brian Allen had an unforgettable moment with Sandhill Cranes a few years back. He lives in Manistee and has traveled the world in search of birds.

He's been to Mexico, Ecuador, Africa, even Malaysian Borneo to see and hear exotic species. But nothing prepared him for an encounter with a pair of wild birds in his own backyard.

It was April 2017 and Brian was walking his wetland looking at birds, plants, and dragonflies. It’s part of his daily routine. But this day turned into a bizarre, exhilarating experience.

I noticed Sandhill Cranes were lingering in our field,” says Brian. “I was very hopeful that they would nest there.

Sandhill Cranes nest in April or May, usually close to marshes and bogs.

Both members of a breeding pair build the nest using plant material from the surrounding area. Brian’s property is an ideal setting for Sandhills.

They would come here almost daily; we'd hear them,” he says. “They've got a loud bugling call, and it was great to have them around.”

Sandhills are pretty common all across Michigan. Brian hoped the large birds would nest in his field, so he avoided the area for a few weeks. But after a while the Sandhills seemed to disappear, so he thought it was safe to walk out there again.

One day I decided to walk straight across the meadow,” he recalls. “I usually don't do that. It's pretty swampy out there. And I had some hip wader boots on and I was exactly in the middle of the open area, nowhere to hide or go, and I heard the Sandhills bugling a little ways away.

Sandhills are big– four feet tall with wings spanning five feet or more.

They’re distinctive in flight with their necks stretched out and legs dangling behind. Their loud bugle calls can be heard up to 2.5 miles away.

The calls kept getting louder and louder, and soon I could see the two cranes come over the trees at the edge of my property headed straight for me,” Brian remembers.

He was in the middle of the wetland with nowhere to go.

I thought, maybe if I just hide in the grass, they won't see me.”

So Brian laid face down in the meadow, hoping to be inconspicuous.

I laid there and I heard them calling still and then it was quiet,” he says. “I thought, that's kind of odd. I thought they'd call and keep passing over me. And then I heard a sound in the grass. And I looked and, I swear, a foot away from me I could see the legs of a Sandhill Crane.”

Sandhills have three long toes with sharp claws on the end of each foot. The claws can be used for scratching in the dirt to find food and for defending themselves.

This crane was walking right around me,” Brian says. “I could see its legs and I looked up and the crane was right there, and looking down at me.

Some researchers estimate Sandhill Cranes to be 2.5 million years old. Brian could see the evolutionary link to dinosaurs.

My impression was how reptilian it looked because I could see all the scales on its face,” he says. “Its eye and the jerky movement seemed very much like a large lizard.

Just then, Brian saw another pair of legs and another other bird was on the other side of him.

“They were walking circles around me and again just about a foot or two away from me,” he recalls. “So I lay there real still. I felt a little trapped.”

There he was– in a marsh, getting wet, and feeling exhilarated at the novelty of the experience. But also a little nervous.
Brian had never heard of a Sandhill Crane attacking a person, but he wasn’t sure what would happen next.

“I turned and looked up at the other one and he’s kind of looking at me in its jerky reptilian way.

All of a sudden there was a wham wham wham– the sound of their wings beating the air. The cranes took off, bugling as they flew away.

“It was almost deafening, it was so loud,” Brians says. “They took off up into the air and flew across the field."

Brian Allen has been birding since he was a teenager, but never in his wildest imagination did he think a pair of Sandhill Cranes would walk circles around him. He wondered who would believe him.

“Nobody's gonna believe me,” he admits, “but yeah, it really happened.”

Brian still has a vivid mental image of the birds craning down to look at him trying to figure out what he was.

“I wondered what was going through their heads at the time,” he says.

Brian Allen serves on the Board of Directors of the Save Birds Thru Habitat. He likes to share his joy of birding with other bird enthusiasts and nature groups, and says once you open your eyes to birding, you’ll notice all sorts of birds– even right in your own backyard.

Sandhill Cranes are common throughout Michigan.
Leslie Hamp
Interlochen Public Radio
Sandhill Cranes are common throughout Michigan.

More on Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes' migration journey has traditionally been to places like Georgia and Florida, but warmer winters are changing that.

“They can survive the cold if they can get at a food supply, says Gary Siegrist, former president of the Michigan Audubon. “So if there’s no snow, even though it’s cold, they will hang around.”

Gary says after the cranes gather in southern Michigan in October and November, now a lot of them only head as far south as Kentucky and Tennessee.

“And some … around us here and in other places– will stay all winter now,” he says.

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