“They’re a much more delicate bird, compared to the swans,” says Carrie McClelland, a wildlife viewing biologist with Environment Yukon. “They stand three and a half to four feet tall, with a six foot wingspan, but they only weigh around seven or eight pounds. They’re very slender.” Lesser sandhill cranes migrate each year from their winter feeding grounds in Texas and New Mexico, travelling thousands of kilometres to their summer nesting grounds in Siberia and Alaska.
They can be seen on this migration route each year in the Yukon (although they do not nest in the Yukon) as they fly through Tintina Trench in Faro. Between 150,000 and 200,000 birds pass through the area each year, and flocks are large, numbering up to 800 individuals at at a time, McClelland notes. Lesser sandhill cranes are among the most successful and numerous crane species in North America, largely due to their adaptability, McClelland says. The long-legged, graceful birds are omnivores, eating not only small fish and frogs like many other crane species, but mice, voles, seeds and fruit. They will also hunt in grasslands, not just wetlands, and have been compared to horses in terms of their behaviour; a comparison which goes so far, McClelland says, that male sandhill cranes are called stallions, females mares and babies colts. The cranes are physically quite striking, with soft grey plumage and a distinctive red cap. This cap is absent in juveniles. The birds lay three to four eggs at a time, but will usually only be successful in rearing one or two colts to adulthood. They are unrelated to herons, despite popular belief. When migrating such long distances, the cranes are “soaring” birds, unlike geese who are “flapping” birds. The cranes use thermals to drift along.
Grouping together, they ride up and down on the warm air currents, which can make them look like they are all rising up and then tumbling down on each other, says McClelland. Aside from being beautiful to observe, the birds are also culturally significant, McClelland says; they are a symbol of fidelity and marriage in many culture.“Like many large birds, the sandhill cranes mate for life and are dedicated, careful parents,” McClelland says. “They’re also known for their elaborate, beautiful courtship rituals, which look like dances.” The sandhill cranes can be viewed in May in Faro, where they are a tourist attraction at the annual Sheep and Crane Festival, which runs May 5th through the 7th. For more information on the Sheep and Crane festival visit www.FaroYukon.ca or their Facebook page called “Town of Faro, Yukon Territory.”