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Bay Area Birds: Say ‘no’ to sandhill crane season

By Charlie Frisk

Sandhill cranes are one of those species that entertains us with beauty, and a magnificent overture of calls.

They were also clearly one of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s favorite birds.

Marshland Elegy, a chapter in “A Sand County Almanac” from 1949 sums up the conservationist’s ardor. 

“High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes,” he wrote. “At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.” 

Leopold called his essay on the sandhill crane an elegy, because he feared the sandhill crane would soon cease to exist in Wisconsin due to destruction of wetlands and unrestricted hunting.

By the 1930s the crane population in Wisconsin had gone from tens of thousands to a low of 25 breeding pairs.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, Wisconsin responded with marsh restoration programs and hunting protections.

As a result, today Wisconsin has a healthy sandhill crane population.

But alas, there are those who believe that any wild bird that can’t be hunted is just a waste. 

Ted Nugent, musician and founder of Hunter Nation, an Oklahoma-based lobbying organization, proposed a Wisconsin sandhill crane hunting season, and there is no shortage of Wisconsin politicians ready to jump on his bandwagon.

Although I’ve been a hunter my entire life, I’m staunchly opposed to a crane season for a number of reasons.

I was taught as a youngster any game a hunter took was to be eaten. 

Only a slob hunter killed animals and wasted them. 

From talking to other hunters, I’ve gotten the impression sandhill cranes would be used more for target practice than sustenance.

Although proponents of sandhill crane hunting refer to cranes as the “ribeye of the sky,” I can find little evidence hunters in states where crane hunting is legal enjoy eating cranes. 

Whenever I talk to hunters who have shot cranes in the Dakotas, I ask them how they tasted. 

So far I haven’t found one hunter who ate the cranes he shot. 

One guy offered as his excuse, “When the crane hit the ground, the sound of its breaking bones freaked me out, and I just couldn’t eat it.”

Another said, “The meat was too dark.” 

A third just looked at me like I was crazy for even suggesting eating a crane, and didn’t say anything.

The truth of the matter is sandhill cranes are just too far out of the realm of what most hunters think of as an edible game bird. 

Maybe that would change over time, but I fear thousands of cranes would be killed and wasted long before that change occurred.

Wisconsin already has too many game birds, I suspect, that are wasted as often as they are utilized. 

Mourning doves, snipe, Virginia and sora rails and moorhen all fall into that category – small size, dark meat and vastly different from traditional game birds. 

Sandhill cranes also don’t reproduce like other game birds. 

With proper regulations we can hunt game birds without damaging populations because they produce lots of surplus offspring.

For example, mallards start nesting when they are 1 year old, lay from eight to 14 eggs, and will re-nest more than five times if the clutch is destroyed.

In contrast, most sandhills begin breeding at 4 years old, but some wait until they are 8. 

They typically lay two eggs, don’t re-nest if the first clutch is destroyed, and for various, primarily predation reasons they usually rear only one offspring.

With their low reproductive rate, a sandhill season would require very conservative limits and season length. 

I’d trust the wildlife biologists at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to come up with regulations which account for the slow reproduction, however, the DNR has had much of its regulatory authority usurped by the Legislature and the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.

Like Leopold, the sandhill crane is one of my favorite birds.

When I’m outdoors, seeing or hearing a crane makes my day truly special. 

It has more value as a symbol of our wild places than as target practice for hunters.

If you feel as I do, please contact your legislators and urge them to vote against a sandhill crane hunting season, and contact Gov. Tony Evers and urge him to veto a sandhill season if it passes in the Legislature.

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