Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

sandhill crane
Sandhill cranes in flight. Photo Brent T. Wheat

Our entire population does not take to the waters with rod and reel in hand. Even less hunt. But almost everyone would take in one of our nation’s greatest wildlife spectacles, back-dropped by beautiful fall scenery.

Over the past several years I have reserved space in this column detailing this natural phenomenon and not a season has passed without someone letting me know they had no idea such a rare natural opportunity existed so close to home and how much they enjoyed their visit.

“We read about it and decided to check it out,” said Kokomo’s Beth Culver, who with her husband Roger, now makes several trips annually. “It’s such a short, beautiful drive and to see this take place in Indiana is pretty cool,” Roger added.

It takes place at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, located near the small town of Medaryville, about an hour’s drive northwest of Kokomo.

As the air turns brisk and the landscape morphs into its stark autumn contrast, thousands of sandhill cranes begin congregating on J-P’s shallow marsh areas on their journey south.

These Hoosier wetlands are one of the largest resting places in the United States for these huge clattering birds. Cranes are birds of open grasslands, meadows and wetlands and the sky literally swarms with them on their return to Hoosier soil.

“The birds are coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada,” said J-P property manager, Jim Bergens. “We have the perfect habitat and often times migrating cranes may spend several weeks here, which is why we build such huge numbers.”

Standing nearly four feet tall on slender legs, these birds sport a red forehead, white cheeks and long dark pointed bill. Their wingspans push seven-feet, making them one of the nation’s largest bird species.

The first big push usually takes place in late October. These early arrivals are harbingers of even higher numbers which usually peak by mid-November. During their fall migration, some 20,000 birds make Indiana their short term home. The highest population estimate of 32,000 cranes occurred during the 1991 migratory season. As of last Thursday DNR staff estimated 5,711 birds were congregating at the fish and wildlife area as dozens of people snapped pictures from cell phones to high-end, tripod mounted cameras.

Gregarious in nature, these raucous birds can be seen soaring over Indiana skies in high flying V’s or circles. Many times they can be heard before being viewed. Cranes have unique unmistakable voices that can be heard for miles when in flight. Some people describe it as a long rolling rattle.

The best place to view the sandhills is from the handicapped accessible observation towers, next to an area known as Goose Pasture. Although cranes can be seen throughout the day, the best time to witness their huge numbers is a few hours after dawn and at sunset.

As the sun breaks the horizon, cranes leave the resting marsh in gigantic, noisy flocks to gather in Goose Pasture where they mingle and gab loudly before taking flight on their seven-foot wingspans for short jaunts to nearby feeding areas. About sunset they return on full bellies to socialize before flying off to roosting areas.

One of the birds most striking and peculiar behaviors is the dance they perform. The humorous sequence begins with the bird bowing low then jumping into the air before settling back on the ground, sometimes throwing leaves and small twigs over its shoulder. This routine is amusing, especially when they decide to perform this dance with their own shadow. Scientists believe this is a way to create new friendships or possibly reaffirming existing ones.

The Jasper-Pulaski FWA is located in a region once famous for the vast Kankakee Marsh. These wetlands consisted of more than one million acres of reeds, ponds and bogs. In the 19th and early 20th century the marsh was drained to make way for agriculture. Today, only several thousand acres remain.

Revenues used in land acquisition, development, operation and maintenance of Jasper-Pulaski, as well as other fish and wildlife areas, are derived from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Operating capital is also provided from the federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs which generate funds from taxes levied on hunting and fishing equipment. This is just one example where Indiana hunters and anglers are proud to provide this property for the enjoyment of all people.

Information, including daily migration numbers is updated weekly and can be found online or by contacting Jasper-Pulaski FWA at (219) 843-4841.

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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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