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Oregon Field Guide

Sandhill Crane Migrations Revealed by Satellites

Producer - Vince Patton
Videographers - Todd Sonflieth, Michael Bendixen
Editor - Nicholas Fisher
Maps - Gary Ivey
Animation - Todd Sonflieth
Additional Video - Nina Faust, Vince Patton

Gravelly trumpets sound across a farmer’s field, with a trill thrown in for good measure. Gary Ivey scans with his binoculars and quickly finds the source. A flock of gangly birds, four to five feet tall, seem to talk constantly.

Sandhill crane.

Sandhill crane.

Vince Patton/OPB

Ivey says, “They do a unison call and we know what that means; ‘This is my spot. Get away from my wife.’”

The cranes, each sporting a crimson head, take off flying north, gossiping all the way.

“Sometimes you get the sense they’re looking for one of their friends,” says Ivey. “Some of the calls are kind of pleading, ‘Where are you?’”

Ivey, research associate with the International Crane Foundation based in Bend, Oregon, has studied sandhills for more than 30 years.

Everything about the sandhill crane seems long. Legs, wings, neck, beak.

Even their migration routes.

The enormous distances they travel was something no one really knew when Oregon Field Guide first met Ivey doing research in 2002. He was at Sauvie Island, near Portland, carefully trapping cranes and attaching satellite transmitters to their legs.

Gary assumed the cranes were coming from Alaska or some place north of there.

It turns out, he not only had the assumed migration route wrong, he had the wrong kind of bird in mind. Ivey and his associates realized the cranes that favor Sauvie Island are not the smallest subspecies of lesser sandhills, they were the rarest Canadian sandhill.  The satellite tracks shows these birds went only to British Columbia, spent about five months there and then returned.

When they hit Sauvie Island on the southbound journey, many just stop. It turns out they like the corn that the wildlife refuge plants and leaves in the fields for birds. They see no need to fly to California or Mexico for the winter.

“The technology is amazing, ” says Ivey. “You can sit at your computer and use Google Earth to see what’s happening yesterday.” No longer does he have to drive around in a truck for weeks trying to spot birds with identification bands on their ankles.
Two sandhill cranes dance while others feed in a field at Sauvie Island, near Portland.

Two sandhill cranes dance while others feed in a field at Sauvie Island, near Portland.

Vince Patton /OPB

Ivey traveled to Homer, Alaska and put satellite tags on more sandhill cranes. These he tracked over a journey of 2600 miles.

It also gave him proof they not only fly enormous distances, they can cover that ground at 35 miles per hour. Some traveled 250 miles in a day. A journey from Alaska to California takes three to four days.

His maps show the sandhills are in a rut. They follow the same routes each year and stop in the same spots to eat.

They particularly like farms. Ivey says they have adapted to humans and have come to rely on agricultural land for food.

For their dramatic comeback, Ivey says, “The birds get most of the credit. They’ve figured out how to live with humans in this new landscape.”

Head counts are not precise, but Ivey estimates there are about 45,000 sandhill cranes now in the Pacific flyway.

sandhill crane crane Portland Sauvie Island Alaska migration birds Pacific flyway

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Sandhill Cranes; Glide Wildflower Show; Zombie Survival Camp (2603)

Oregon Field Guide: Episode #2603
Most Recent Broadcast: November 6, 2014