Tom Ress, Alabama Birding Trails Ambassador
Sandhill cranes are a conspicuous winter bird in parts of Alabama. However, that has not always been the case. The reason? Historically, Sandhill cranes in the eastern population migrated well east of Alabama, moving from northern Canada and the Great Lakes region through Indiana, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee to spend their winter in southern Georgia and northern Florida.
The earliest known reference to sandhill cranes occurring in Alabama can be found in A.H. Howell’s Birds of Alabama (1928). He noted the following:
“A few pairs are resident and breed in the pine flats of Baldwin County. D.R. Peteet reports a small bunch living within two miles of Foley, and a few are known to occur about the shores of Perdido Bay, having been frequently heard calling in January, 1912, by the residents of Orange Beach. A pair was reported in the same vicinity in August 1911, and during the same summer an adult and a young bird were captured near the mouth of Perdido Bay, on the Alabama side.”
Fast forward fifty years and only sporadic sightings were reported. The Sandhill crane’s unique call was largely absent from Alabama’s fields and waters. In November 1963, a Sandhill crane was reported on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge by Ernest Jemison of the refuge staff. This was the first and only one reported for the next 17 years until a single Sandhill crane was spotted on the refuge in 1980 and spent most of the winter there.
The refuge staff often encountered the birds while conducting recurring winter waterfowl counts, so Wheeler NWR became a reliable reporting site for crane population numbers. For this reason, much of the documentation of Sandhill crane numbers in Alabama is from the refuge. Sandhill crane sightings in late fall and early winter increased through the late 1980s, but the first wintering birds were in 1992 when three birds remained on Wheeler NWR through January 1993. Small numbers wintered on the refuge each year through 1997 when numbers started to increase dramatically.
In the early 1990s, for reasons unknown, small groups began to linger and spent the winter in east Tennessee near Hiwassee. The number of birds wintering there increased dramatically and about the same time small numbers found their way to Wheeler NWR. Three wintered on the Refuge in 1995; 11 in 1997; 50 in 2000; 500 in 2005; 1200 in 2007; and 10,000 in 2015. Wintering numbers seemed to double each year from 2000 through 2008, establishing Wheeler NWR as an important sandhill crane wintering site.
Fast forward to now. Sandhill cranes can be found in pockets of habitat in various locations in the state, but the largest concentration is still in Wheeler NWR. Walk outside the refuge’s visitor center on any winter day and you will probably see hundreds, if not thousands, of Sandhill cranes feeding and flying in the surrounding fields. Most years, 15,000 to 20,000 Sandhill cranes visit the refuge, with up to 10,000 in the fields surrounding the visitor center and wildlife observation building at their seasonal peak. In good years, upwards of 25,000 have been recorded. Sandhill cranes proclaim their presence in flight and on the ground with raucous calls… some might even call it a noisy din.
The increase in Sandhill cranes in Alabama parallels an increase in the North American population. By 1940 less than 1,000 birds remained nationwide and they were largely extirpated east of the Mississippi River. But their populations have recovered, with an estimated 98,000 in the region in 2018. Cranes are now numerous, and their population increased by over 4% per year between 1966 and 2019. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the current breeding population is estimated to be 560,000. This increase can be attributed in part to restrictions on hunting after the species was nearly hunted to extinction and the expansion of agricultural areas that provide plentiful feed.
Listen for the unique call of these imposing birds when you’re out birding this winter. It is an impressive bird to add to your life list!