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

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