Sandhill Cranes in Johnson County

Sandhill Cranes in Johnson County

Jul 24, 2015

Seeing is believing. Add Johnson County to the areas in Iowa with rare sandhill crane reproduction. This spring, an adult pair was seen occasionally, on a wetland near Solon. A couple times, drivers avoided windshield roadkill, as they braked to allow the lean, reddish brown waterbird right of way, across the two-lane highway.

About that time, a ‘courtship dance’ indicated these four foot tall birds were intent on sticking around. And a darker brown colt, feeding with them by June, sealed the deal.

Actually, a pair with a couple young was spotted by wildlife workers upstream on the Iowa River corridor in 2014. That family, on the Hawkeye Wildlife Area was the first confirmed sighting of nesting sandhills, in the county. This year’s sightings doubles the population, spreading to another side of Johnson County.

Fossils of sandhill cranes date back 2.5 million years. They thrive on marshes and wet prairies. Their diet was just about anything they could swallow; small rodents, frogs, insects, young birds, eggs, seed, grass shoots, grain, bulbs…aquatic plants, too.

Like many water-oriented species, however, cranes disappeared in the 19th Century as European settlement spread across Iowa. Unregulated hunting and loss of wetlands, as marshes were drained for farmable acres, led to rapid declines.

Through the 1900s, you were lucky if you spotted a couple migrating through in the spring. By the 1970s and ‘80s, though, numbers increased markedly. In 1992, the first successful nest was confirmed in Otter Creek Wildlife Area in Tama County. Within a couple years, other state-managed wildlife areas had their own crane families. By 2006, the confirmed nesting population was at 170…with most of them around Otter Creek, Sweet Marsh (Bremer County) and the Green Island Bottoms (Jackson County). Since ’92, reproduction has been reported in 21 Iowa counties.

The best bet for viewing these still uncommon Iowa cranes? Watch from a distance, preferably from a blind; even if it is just your vehicle along the roadside. Pack along a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope to get an up close look.

A side note? These most often (exceptions in far western Iowa) are not the same populations that create clouds of migrating mayhem in central Nebraska. Those are Arctic nesting cranes. In Iowa, it is more likely those moving through Wisconsin to nest, or to go further north. Iowa based birds likely winter in Georgia and Florida.