April 16, 2009

Throwing Pooh for Love

I got your attention with that header, didn't I? Yep, it's a little something called marketing writing.

Just about two weeks ago, I got up early and drove to Layton in order to see newly arrived sandhill cranes on a field trip with the Wild Bird Center. These beautiful birds winter in southern states (like retired RVers) and return to Utah to mate every spring (I have no idea whether retired RVers do this as well, but, if the trailer is a rockin'...).

Ick, let's get that image out of our minds. Instead, let's talk about Your (graceful yet goofy) Bird of the Week, the Sandhill Crane.

Fact: The sandhill crane is a large bird, standing as tall as your average 4th grader (about 3 to 5 feet). It sports a slate gray body, black legs, red forehead, and white cheeks.
Fact: The sandhill crane has some serious booty, with large, tufted feathers on its rump known as a "bustle."
Fact: The sandhill crane often colors its gray feathers during mating season, preening iron-rich, red mud through its feathers for a stained, rusty appearance. (It brings to mind a bad dye job on...hate to say it...retired RVers.)
Fact: The sandhill crane can be found in high altitude marshy areas and meadows, especially where cows graze.
Fact: The sandhill crane is the oldest known bird species still in existence. A fossil in Nebraska from about 10 million years ago is structurally identical to the cranes we know and love today. Maybe that's why cranes look like pterodactyls in the air.
Fact: The sandhill crane isn't just old as a species, individual birds also live a very long time--up to 20 years in the wild.
Fact: Sticking around that long may be one of the reasons that these birds mate for life. Once paired, a sandhill crane couple rarely leave each other, migrating back and forth from wintering grounds to mating grounds.
Fact: Despite the fact that they've often "been there, done that," cranes still perform mating rituals to woo each other in the spring. They have loud, chortling unison calls. And, then there is their famous mating dance, which is what I was hoping to see in Layton. I didn't, but there are plenty of good videos out there.

Fact: A lesser known mating ritual is the one I referred to in the title of this post. In meadows where there are lots of cow pies, sandhill cranes will often pick one up and fling it in the air, scattering dried pooh and dung beetles around the meadow. A crane will then select a particularly juicy beetle and offer it to its mate. Ahhh.
Fact: All of this must get pretty complicated, because the sandhill crane won't typically mate until it is at least 2 years old (sometimes not until it's 6 or 7).
Fact: If all goes well, that romantic dancing and pooh-flinging will ultimately result in one or two chicks. They are pretty damned adorable (looking like downy dinosaurs) and need a lot of care from their parents for the first year or so. In fact, the whole family stays together through winter migration.

This has been Your Bird of the Week.

P.S. I recently purchased a scope from Bill Fenimore at the Wild Bird Center! And, I might experiement with a little digiscoping in the coming months. Who knows, maybe some day I can stop stealing photos off the Internet!

Photo credits: International Crane Foundation

April 4, 2009

It's Business Time

Humans are complicated. At least the sexual part of us is. We have morals and phobias and self-esteem issues. Missed cues and misinterpreted words. Needy kids and late-night television. It's kind of amazing we actually manage to do it once in a while.

That's why I like seeing birds in spring. There's no guessing in the avian world. Take a look around, and you realize that all of them have sex on the brain. Tim and I drove by a pond of American avocets the other day, and I turned to him and said: "Somebody's lookin' to get some." Once I clarified that I was referring to the birds, I explained that avocets are black and white most of the year but get a bright red streak down their necks during mating season. They look like hot and bothered teenagers after a makeout session.

As part of my springtime voyeurism, I went on a short field trip this weekend with Bill Fenimore of the Wild Bird Center in hopes of seeing the lovely sandhill crane do its famous mating dance. It didn't feel like spring, considering we were all shivering under three layers of clothing, but the birds at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve didn't seem to know the difference. Yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds were calling, American avocets were blushing, a meadowlark was singing, northern flickers were flashing, and the sandhill cranes were croaking.

Yes, I said croaking. But it's a very sexy croak. I'll let Bill Fenimore tell you a bit more about the trip:

While we didn't see the sandhill crane's actual mating dance, as Bill mentioned, we got some very good looks at the cranes--in the sky and on land. They really are cool, kooky birds, which is why an honest-to-goodness Your Bird of the Week featuring the sandhill is on its way.

Until then, thanks to Bill, Phil Douglass of the Utah Division of Wildlife (your gloves saved me!), and my fellow birders who braved the elements.
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