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Sandhill Cranes Found Nesting in Massachusetts

Dear Bird Folks,

I just finished reading one of your past columns about Sandhill Cranes being seen in Massachusetts. In the column you told us that, “Although we do occasionally see a crane around here, seeing two would be almost unheard of.” Well, a friend of mine claims that Sandhill Cranes have actually nested in a town out in the Berkshires. I’ve searched the Internet for confirmation but have found nothing. At the risk of having you contradict yourself, could you shed some light on my friend’s mysterious nesting cranes?

– Frank, Oxford, MA


Thanks, Frank,

Thanks for making me choose between making myself look bad or making your friend look bad. Wait, that’s no choice at all. Of course, it’s your friend who is way off on this one. Heck, if you can’t prove your friend’s story, then don’t expect me to do it for you. I have my legion of fans to think about. Well, I have a legion of fans if you call my mother and her two friends a “legion.” Actually, my mother really isn’t much of a fan, but one of her two friends is, I think. Oh, forget it. I have no fans at all, so I might as well fess up. Your friend is right. There are, indeed, Sandhill Cranes nesting in the Berkshires. I can’t deny it. Although I’m not sure if the Berkshires are actually part of Massachusetts; for the sake of this column, however, I’ll assume they are. I don’t feel like being wrong twice this year.

At a height of nearly four feet and with a six foot wingspan, a bright red forehead and a voice that could wake the dead, a Sandhill Crane is nearly impossible to overlook. Yet somehow, with very few people knowing about it, not one, but two Sandhill Cranes moved into Massachusetts last spring and built a nest. This is the first confirmed crane nesting in the state’s history and is big news in the bird world, even if it does make me look bad. I’ll be okay.

When I received your note, Frank, I did what you and everyone else does when they want to know something, I asked the guy at the coffee shop. He was useless, so I searched the Web, and just like you, I found nothing about nesting Mass cranes. Upon not finding anything to back up the story I was sure the rumor was false and figured your friend had probably just been smoking some bad birdseed. But everything changed yesterday afternoon when I stopped into a nearby library. I like to stop whenever I see a library and catch up on my reading. I do, honest. Okay, fine, I never read, I just stopped to use the bathroom, but whatever… There on the rack was the answer to your question. In the latest edition of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine is a cover story of these two history-making cranes. How cool is that?

The story, complete with great color photos, was written by Scott Melvin, the state’s super-smart zoologist. Back in April, the birds were reported by a local landowner in the town of New Marlborough. (Go ahead, look it up on the map. I had to.) The pair had built their four-foot circular nest among the cattails in a quiet beaver pond. (Yea, beavers!) Two eggs were laid, but only one hatched, which is fine because most of the time the parents will only raise one baby. (Cranes like to practice population control.) The lone cranelet was spotted several times during the summer and it is hoped that it will survive the chick-stage and will fly off with its parents when they leave in the fall.

Scott, unlike me, wasn’t shocked by the news of the nesting cranes. The birds have been pushing east in recent years. Large populations now breed in Michigan and Ontario, with a few pioneering birds setting up nests in Pennsylvania, New York and Maine. It is quite possible that the birds would have nested in New Marlborough a few years sooner, but they probably couldn’t find it.

It should be noted that this is the first “confirmed” nesting of Sandhill Cranes in Mass. These cranes may have been around during colonial times, but there are very few accurate records available to prove it. The other problem is that early writers sometimes called herons “cranes” and vice versa, just like some people today call House Finches “Purple Finches” or a peekapoo a “dog.” If the cranes were around back then, they most likely met the same fate as the Wild Turkey and were served with gravy and stuffing. Now that the Wild Turkey has returned, perhaps the cranes are thinking that it’s once again safe for them to return also.

Sandhill Crane pairs remain together throughout the year and often return to the same breeding site. That’s great news, Frank. That means there is a good chance these same birds will return this spring, and if we are lucky, other cranes will follow. After that, who knows? But first the original cranes must survive the rigors of migration and then they have to figure out how to find New Marlborough once again. Good luck to them with that.