A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: Ky’s Sandhill Crane season marks sixth year as population continues to expand

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Sandhill cranes migrate through Kentucky twice a year, from their breeding grounds to wintering grounds, and back. Their migration corridor is bounded roughly by Henderson, in the west, to Lexington, in the east. The sandhill cranes that are being hunted in Kentucky are birds that winter here.

Sandhill cranes migrate through Kentucky twice a year, from their breeding grounds to wintering grounds, and back. Their migration corridor is bounded roughly by Henderson, in the west, to Lexington, in the east. The sandhill cranes that are being hunted in Kentucky are birds that winter here.

Sandhill cranes migrate through Kentucky twice a year along a corridor bounded roughly by Henderson, in the west, to Lexington, in the east. 

A majority of the birds migrating southward in the fall continue on to wintering grounds in southern Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. The sandhill cranes that are being hunted in Kentucky are birds that winter here. 

“The long-term average of birds wintering in Kentucky is about 12,000, but at times there are 20,000 or more,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “As the eastern population continues to expand, we expect more wintering birds.”

Eastern Population Growing, Expanding

The largest concentration of birds that stopover in Kentucky is at Barren River Lake, which at winter pool, is drawn down 27 feet from 10,000 surface acres to 4,340 surface acres, exposing thousands of acres of mudflats. The birds roost on the mudflats and feed in agricultural fields as far as 30 miles from the lake. (Photo by Joel Sartore)

The largest concentration of birds that stopover in Kentucky is at Barren River Lake, which at winter pool, is drawn down 27 feet from 10,000 surface acres to 4,340 surface acres, exposing thousands of acres of mudflats. The birds roost on the mudflats and feed in agricultural fields as far as 30 miles from the lake. (Photo by Joel Sartore)

The U.S. population of sandhill cranes, including six subspecies, and two resident populations (in Florida and Mississippi), is estimated to be more than 650,000.

The eastern population has grown significantly since the 1970s. The most recent survey of the eastern population was 96,000, but the number may be closer to 110,000 to 120,000, Brunjes said. “There’s new expansion of the population occurring in Ontario.”

The sandhill cranes in the eastern population nest predominately in the Great Lake states — Ontario (Canada), Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — but there are also small populations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

The tracking of radio collared birds has shown some interchange of birds between the eastern population and mid-continent population, which migrates down the the Central Flyway. 

The mid-continent population of sandhill cranes, the largest of several distinct populations in the U.S., breeds in Canada, winters in Texas, and has been hunted since 1961.

In recent years, 15 states have had sandhill crane hunting seasons. 

“This is the sixth year for our season,” said Brunjes. “For the first three years it was an experimental season.”

After receiving a positive review from the Mississippi Flyway Council, and approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the season was granted operational status in 2015, with a season timeframe of 30 days, a daily and season bag limit of two birds per hunter, and a harvest quota of 400 birds.

The highest number of sandhill cranes in Kentucky usually occurs in February, after the hunting season, when birds that wintered farther south, stop here and rest up, before continuing their northward migration, back to their breeding grounds.

Sandhill cranes are very habitat specific. “They need shallow water, and extensive mudflats to escape predators, since they don’t roost in trees,” said Brunjes.

While occasionally small groups of sandhill cranes may be observed on ponds or wetlands in Central and Western Kentucky, a majority of the birds that stopover in Kentucky are drawn to two areas — Barren River Lake, and a group of spring-fed ponds in Hardin County.

The largest concentration is a Barren River Lake. Biologists believe sandhill cranes congregate there because at winter pool the lake is drawn down 27 feet from 10,000 surface acres to 4,340 surface acres, exposing thousands of acres of mudflats. 

The birds roost on the mudflats and feed in agricultural fields as far as 30 miles from the lake. Traditional roost areas on the lake, in Beaver Creek, Skaggs Creek and Peters Creek, are off limits to hunting.

Large, Mobile Birds

Sandhill cranes are very mobile birds, capable of flying up to 400 miles a day, at heights of up to 10,000 feet. When fully grown they have a wingspan of six to eight feet, which helps them soar for hours in thermal updrafts, with only occasional flapping of their wings.

Sandhill cranes are very mobile birds, capable of flying up to 400 miles a day, at heights of up to 10,000 feet. When fully grown they have a wingspan of six to eight feet, which helps them soar for hours in thermal updrafts, with only occasional flapping of their wings.

Kentucky’s 30-day sandhill crane season opens December 17, and continues through January 15, 2017. 

The sandhill crane (Grus Canadensis) may be more than four feet tall, and has distinctive plumage and coloration — gray, with a tuft of feathers over their rump. They have a red forehead and white cheeks, and a long pointed bill. 

Sandhill cranes are very mobile birds, capable of flying up to 400 miles a day, at heights of up to 10,000 feet. When fully grown they have a wingspan of six to eight feet, which helps them soar for hours in thermal updrafts, with only occasional flapping of their wings. In flight, their necks are held straight out, with their long dark legs trailing behind.

Cranes may be the oldest known bird species surviving on Earth. Fossils of cranes, dated at nearly 10 million years old, have been found in Nebraska. 

Cranes and herons look a lot alike, but are actually not closely related. 

Hunter Harvest

As in all migratory bird hunting, weather has a big impact on hunter harvest, since cold weather tends to push birds southward, in search of open water and food.

Kentucky has a harvest quota of 400 birds per season, but that number has never been reached.

In five years of hunting sandhill cranes in Kentucky, the harvest has averaged 80 birds per season, with all of the birds taken on privately-owned lands in just 16 counties, according to Telecheck records posted on the KDFWR website: 

Decoying sandhill cranes into gun range is considered “the holy grail” of migratory bird hunting as sandhill cranes are extremely wary, with keen eyesight, and an ability to spot unnatural looking decoy spreads.

Permit Application Process for Kentucky’s Season

Now is the time for hunters to apply for a permit to participate in Kentucky’s upcoming sandhill crane season.

Hunters must apply online. The application period continues through November 30, 2016. There’s a $3 application fee.

The drawing for permits will be held on December 2, 2016. Hunters must telecheck harvested birds on the day taken, and monitor fw.ky.gov or call (800) 858-1549 for harvest updates, and other information pertinent to the season.

Hunters participating in Kentucky’s sandhill crane season must also complete a post-season survey by January 25, 2017, or lose eligibility to apply the following year.

1Art-Lander-Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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