Croaking Cranes Enliven Stay At Home

Jun 17, 2020

Sandhill cranes near Comstock Creek in spring 2020
Credit Courtesy photo / Bill Maxey

Like many people, Bill Maxey has been seeing more wildlife during the shutdown.

“Long retired” from the Upjohn Company, Maxey lives near Comstock Creek east of Kalamazoo. He's been home more than usual since March.


“We get quite a bit of wildlife along the creek as you might imagine,” Maxey told WMUK, “and this spring we’ve been treated to sandhill cranes coming in all during the month of April and into May.”

We asked Maxey about the cranes for our latest story about your sounds of the pandemic.

If you’ve seen a sandhill crane, you know they’re tall with a wide wingspan.

“When you see them take off and fly they are extremely graceful,” Maxey said.

Sandhill cranes all but disappeared in the early 1900s. They had lost habitat and had been “pretty well shot into extinction,” Maxey said. In an effort to bring them back, conservationists set up refuges like the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellevue, home of the annual CraneFest. (Despite the pandemic, this year's event is still tentatively scheduled for Oct. 10-11, Donald Stilwell of the Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek told WMUK. He said the Club will make a final call on whether it's safe to hold CraneFest closer to festival time.)

One crane dances for another.
Credit Courtesy photo / Bill Maxey

“They started making a comeback and now there are thousands upon thousands of sandhill cranes making home in Michigan during the summer,” he said.

Maxey says up to four cranes were appearing almost daily this spring in the wetlands near his house.

“At times they’ve been doing their mating dance where they will flop their very long wings and jump up into the air, rather ungainly sort of action, and they will squawk with this prehistoric hoarse croak of theirs, very, very loudly and if you’re outdoors you can hear them nearly a half a mile, three quarters of a mile away, I would imagine,” he said.

Prehistoric croak is not an exaggeration. The Michigan Audubon Society says sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living bird species (other sources say they are among the oldest species). Sandhill cranes have been around about two and half million years. The earliest known fossils of our species are just one-eighth that old.

Of course, when I asked Maxey to get the cranes on tape, “that’s when the cranes stopped coming,” he said.

“They never showed up again for a period of several weeks,” he added. “I had pretty much given up on the project.”

Maxey sent some photos he’d taken earlier of cranes flying and dancing, but explained that he hadn’t been able to record them.

More dancing cranes.
Credit Courtesy photo / Bill Maxey

Suddenly, they came back for "about an hour," during which Maxey headed outside with his phone. Although he says the birds were about 125 feet away, on the recording they’re so loud it sounds like he’s standing among them.

These cranes weren’t dancing, so much as hanging out.

Maxey says he hears cranes in the wetlands every year, but this is “the most we’ve had by far.” He thinks they’re enjoying an area that was mowed for a prairie.

“They stalk around and munch on whatever goodies they’re finding there and in the shallow water along the creek,” Maxey said.

Another photo shows the cranes' impressive wingspan.
Credit Courtesy photo / Bill Maxey