Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Day I Fell in Love with the Sandhills

It was an hour before sunrise as we arrived at our destinationa nondescript cottonwood tree between an arroyo and a dirt road, almost two hours south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here we would perform a survey of the local Sandhill Crane population, counting their numbers, and recording the trajectory of their flight. We unloaded our range finders, compasses, inclinometers, and a thermometer displaying single digits, and waited in silence for the cranes.

They arose without warning­the sound of trumpets and wings filling the air and dark figures beginning to fill the purple, dimly lit sky. They moved in small groups at first, otherworldly figures with wingspans of nearly two meters, growing in number with each passing minute. As they began to descend into a nearby field, discordant shots rang out­shattering the peace and fluidity of the seconds just before.

Thus was the moment I fell in love with the cranes.

Top and middle: Courtesy Author, Bottom: Courtesy Scott Helfrich-2012 National Wildlife Photo Contest, National Wildlife Refuge System
Later that afternoon, we visited the check station. Hunters lined up, dropping their birds onto the cold cement floor in little piles of feathers that left puddles of blood behind them. A New Mexico Game and Fish employee directed me to record the age and sex of the arriving birds. I opened their eyes and compared their color to a nearby chart: “straw” color indicated a juvenile, while pure red indicated an adult. I measured their limbs and removed their internal organs to determine their sex. I stifled my shock at the wounds inflicted by bullets and talked to hunters, one of which spoke of shooting a crane that he later failed to retrieve, and speculated that the cranes he bagged would set records.

My experiences that day highlight the precarious position held by many species in society. Sandhill Cranes are birds so loved by the public that a week long “Festival of the Cranes” is held each year to celebrate their arrival, drawing thousands of visitors to rural New Mexico and bringing a flurry of business to local hotels and restaurants.

However, they are “Ribeye of the Sky” for the less than 200 hunters who actively hunt cranes each winter in New Mexicohunters who contribute relatively little to the local economy when compared to the masses of non-consumptive crane enthusiasts. Wounded cranes that go un-retrieved are not uncommon. In fact, the USF&WS estimates that for every crane bagged, one crane is lost due to “crippling.”[i] Additionally, chicks are dependent on their parents to some degree until they reach about ten months of age. Thus cranes are actively caring for their chicks during the hunting season.

It is my hope that New Mexico Game and Fish will one day recognize the value that living cranes bring to New Mexico, and that hunting them is not only cruel and economically insignificant, but an unnecessary disruption to a species that has been migrating to the region since the Pleistocene. 


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2012). Status and Harvests of Sandhill Cranes. Denver, CO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


  1. Thanks For Sharing My Image Of The Sandhill Cranes
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