By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In mid-May of 2013, Ruth and I left my house in the pre-dawn darkness of a Saturday morning, with a plan to begin photographing blooming lilac bushes at first light. Before we reached the lilacs, however, we passed a small marsh and realized that there was a Sandhill Crane sitting on a nest.
Sandhill Cranes mate for life, which can be 20 years or more. The female usually lays two eggs, which are incubated by both parents. The male, however, spends more of his time defending the nest, as the male is doing in the photo below.
Luckily, I have a powerful lens, so I was photographing from a distance and the cranes didn’t seem to mind my presence. However, after a few minutes, a train came rolling down the tracks across the road from the marsh and it was blowing its whistle. So the mother crane stood up, and we realized that there were two baby chicks in the nest.
The father crane then became a bit agitated by the train and began pacing quickly around the nest and sounding an alert call every few seconds.
As the train rumbled off in the distance, the family of cranes settled back down and the mother started to leave the nest. The little chicks decided they’d better follow her.
Both parents entered the water with the chicks hurrying behind them. I don’t know how old these chicks were, but Sandhill Crane chicks are capable of leaving the nest and swimming within 8 hours of being hatched.
We watched as they foraged for food and the little chicks worked hard to keep up with their parents. Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous, which means they eat both animals and plants. Their diet consists of seeds, worms, snails, frogs, and small reptiles and rodents, in addition to waste grain left in farm cornfields. Finally we decided to continue on to our lilacs.
The following morning, I visited the nest again to see if I could capture a few more photos of the baby crane chicks. When I arrived, they were finishing up their morning foraging, but to my surprise (and sadness), there was only one chick.
I watched with concern for a long time, hoping that the second chick would emerge from the water, but he never did. Although Sandhill Crane pairs usually start out with two eggs, it is typical that only one chick survives. In this case, it’s likely that the second chick was taken by a predator such as a fox or a raccoon.
When the cranes had finished foraging, the mother returned to the nest with the baby chick close behind. She then lay down on the nest.
What happened next was amazing and something I had never witnessed before. As soon as the mother crane was on the nest, the baby chick approached her wing.
Then he quickly stretched up onto his tiptoes and pushed himself up under her wing.
The mother crane spread her wings apart while the little chick settled himself on her back.
Then she folded her wings over him. If you look closely in the photo below, you will see the top of the chick’s head above the mother’s back.
Sandhill Crane families stay together through the winter, with the surviving juveniles separating from their parents the following spring. I hope this little guy made it to become a parent himself.