Sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes, such as this pair shown in flight, have seen an increase in numbers and nesting range.

As I drove into town one clear morning recently, looking for birds along the road as I always do, I saw 15, just 14. There were 14 swallows perched on the power line along the road and one robin that flew across the road ahead of me. Fifteen birds, where I used to see many times that number.

The number of birds in North America has decreased, declined by an estimated 40% in recent years.

I used to see many times 15 as I drove the 4 miles from home into town. And I saw just two species. I didn’t see a meadowlark which I used to see perched on fence posts along every country road.

I didn’t see a sparrow, not a single LBJ, little brown job, not a vesper or a field sparrow, not a Savannah or grasshopper or Henslow’s or any other sparrow. I didn’t see a kingbird or a flycatcher, I didn’t see a shrike or a dickcissel. I didn’t see a red-tailed hawk or a kestrel, hawks I used to see regularly.

I saw more birds in town, starlings and house sparrows of course, cardinals and blue jays and mourning doves. I saw black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, house finches, tufted titmice, red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds at bird feeders. But I didn’t see any chimney swifts which were once abundant circling over towns during the day. I didn’t see a nighthawk, also once a common bird flying over towns.

While the total number of birds and most species have declined, not all species have declined. Canada geese have increased. I see flocks of Canada geese at almost every lake and pond. I see Canada geese on lawns. Canada geese have become more numerous, it seems, than starlings.

Sandhill cranes have increased and expanded their nesting range. Sandhill cranes now nest in Indiana, and in Illinois and Ohio. I’ve seen sandhill crane nests near my home in northern Indiana. Sandhill cranes nest north into southern Canada.

Following nesting sandhills gather and winter in immense flocks. They spend the nights standing in shallow water, the days ranging over the countryside, feeding in harvested grain fields. Perhaps the largest winter congregation of sandhill cranes is in eastern Nebraska along the Missouri River. I’ve been there when the cranes were there. I’ve seen them in the fields, a million to a million and a half of them.

Sandhill cranes also spend the winter at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. Not millions, just thousands, standing in shallow water on the Jasper-Pulaski Fish at night, flying out and feeding in fields around the Fish and Wildlife Area during the day.

Bald eagles have increased, aided by the efforts of people.

To establish nesting eagles in Indiana, eaglets were taken from nests in other states and brought to Indiana. Here the eaglets were put in a man-made nest in southern Indiana, fed by care-takers and allowed to fly free as they matured. Now bald eagles have several nests in Indiana.

Wild turkeys decreased greatly but in the past 50 years have increased. While I lived and worked at Salamonie Reservoir in north-central Indiana, wild turkeys were trapped in Iowa, brought to Indiana and released. Now turkeys are numerous enough to have a hunting season and be hunted annually in Indiana.

California condors, once nearly extinct, have increased. In what must be the most extreme example of care, all the existing California condors were captured, induced to mate and raise young and their fledglings released to the wild. California condors no longer appear to be in danger of extinction but their number is still very low and they are now threatened by lead poisoning from shotgun pellets they ingest when feeding on carcasses.

I can’t predict bird decline or species, but I can continue to monitor numbers and species.

Neil Case may be reached at

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