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Flora and Fauna | Environment

In A Cascade Marsh, A Summer Sight: Nesting Sandhill Cranes

A pair of nesting cranes at Howard Prairie Lake

A pair of nesting cranes at Howard Prairie Lake

Amelia Templeton

At Howard Prairie Lake, in the southern Oregon Cascades, a pair of Greater Sandhill cranes is defending their territory.

The male strikes the ground with his beak and flashes his wings open. He calls, and the female echoes him.

Gary Ivey, a Bend resident who works for the International Crane Foundation, says in early summer chicks are hatching and vulnerable, and crane parents are likely to act defensively.

“They’re kind of like a trumpet with a long trill. You can hear them from miles away,” he says.

Most Sandhill Cranes pass through the Northwest during their spring migration, and move on to Alaska to breed for the summer.

But every year, several hundred pairs of Greater Sandhill Cranes build their nests in marshes on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and 250 pair nest in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“Cranes are kind of like people. “They have their own back yards. They go to their home summer place for the year,“ Ivey says.

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When: Chicks, called colts, generally hatch in May. They spend their first few weeks of life on the nest. Then they fledge, joining their parents in the marshes in late June. 

Where: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: 30 miles south of Burns, Ore on Highway 205. The cranes forage in wet meadows in the Blitzen Valley, and can be spotted from the highway. 

Where: Howard Prairie Lake, 25 miles east of Ashland, Ore. on Dead Indian Memorial Rd. Several pair of cranes are nesting in the marshes at the north tip of the lake. 

Etiquette: Cranes are territorial and easily disturbed. Keep your distance or use your car as a blind to observe them. 

The Greater Sandhills that breed in Oregon and Washington were once driven near extinction by settlers who hunted them for food.

But their numbers have been slowly increasing since the 1940s, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and habitat restoration.

The Malheur refugee is one of the best places in the region to observe the birds. Jess Wenick, a habitat ecologist at the refuge, says most nest and forage in wet marshes in the Blitzen valley area of the refuge. Chicks, called colts, generally hatch in May and fledge in late June.

The cranes get the most attention from visitors because of their size, Wenick says. But another fascinating bird species shares that habitat with them: the Bobolink.

“The males look like they’re wearing a tuxedo and they sound like R-2 D-2. They depend on forbes in the wet meadow.”

sandhill crane_colt
A colt in a nest. Credit: Barbara Wheeler

Crane pairs mate for life, though like people, pairs will divorce sometimes. Ivey says that because they nest on the ground, crane chicks are particularly vulnerable to predators. He estimates only about 1 chick in 10 in Oregon survives to adulthood. Coyotes and mink eat the rest.

Their nest is a platform of reeds that can float as the water rises.

“They walk their chicks out to feed during the day, and walk them back to the nest Site during the night” says Ivey.

The sandhill crane represents an unusual success story, Ivey says. Of 15 crane species in the world, 11 are critically endangered.

Greater Sandhill Crane pair  MC8377_Barbara Wheeler Photography, USFWS Volunteer[4]
A pair of cranes in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Barbara Wheeler

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