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SANDHILL CRANES IN ALABAMA and a call to "shoot" with cameras

Early morning view at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Alabama in January

Every January, as the sun is barely rising over the greenish-gray marshes and ponds at the Wheeler Wildlife Center near Decatur, Alabama, you can see them soar in, landing beside the ponds on their migration. Some in pairs, others in small groups of four or five, these large glorious flying creatures with red foreheads, white cheeks and seven-foot wings make their daily morning entrance: their light gray bodies are sharply contrasted against the dark perennial forest behind.

They come by the thousands: sometimes as many as twenty thousand cranes will huddle together feeding in the marsh. Individual birds are pure art to see, but en masse, they are a cacophony of wonderment. Looking from viewers stations, visitors can see the cranes feeding, or doing a mating dance that looks like hopping straight up and down while flapping their expansive wings. They bow and pump their heads up and down. The dance is exuberant, and they look somewhat gangly yet graceful at the same time.

Sandhill Crane mating dance
One step of the Sandhill Crane mating dance.

Later in the day, as though on cue, thousands of the cranes will decide to lift off all at once from the marsh. The experience of hearing perhaps six-thousand beating wings and their excited trumpeting calls as they lift off together, is both exhilarating and primordially beautiful. There is shared DNA here and one can sense it. (I hope that any reader of these words will do themselves a favor and witness this amazing experience at least once in your life.)

They weren’t always so plentiful. In fact in 1997, only twenty-six Sandhill Cranes were observed at WWR center while only 11 miles from the Alabama border in Gautier, The Federal Government has spent millions of dollars since 1975 trying to safeguard the endangered Sandhill Crane at The Mississippi Crane National Wildlife Refuge. These impressive birds mate for life and can live as long as 36 years. Their chicks are precocious and start running just 8 hours out of the eggshell.

For the past several years, a few Whooping Cranes, one of the rarest birds on earth, have come to Wheeler Wildlife Refuge to feed, and they stand out from the crowd of Sandhills with their four-foot tall white bodies. The Whoopers have been known to breed with Sandhill Cranes to create hybrids.

Whooping Crane
Whooping Cranes stand out from the grayer Sandhill Cranes.

I was shocked and saddened that The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is issuing 400 permits to hunt and kill Sandhill Cranes this year. It has been 103 years since Sandhills were hunted in Alabama. A spokesperson from WFF said to me on the phone that the only method the WFF has to raise funds is the income they receive from fishing and hunting licenses. I am calling on the hunters to put down their guns and get a camera to shoot with. You will still have the thrill and challenge of a hunt, but you will allow these magnificent creatures to live.

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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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