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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Grand Forks County adds species to nesting list

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Sandhill cranes2 / 2

Grand Forks County has another species on its list of breeding birds. It’s not exactly a new species, though.

Sandhill cranes almost certainly nested in the county before the agricultural frontier reached the Red River Valley.

For several years, there has been speculation that the birds had again nested here, with local bird enthusiasts more or less convinced, depending on their own experiences.

I’ve been a skeptic.

Despite reports from neighbors and fellow birders, I haven’t been willing to add the bird to my own list of breeding species — even though I’ve seen sandhill cranes in the summer, including a pair earlier this year.

A sighting does not a breeding record make.

Good evidence of nesting arrived late in July, when a family of sandhill cranes was seen near Larimore, N.D. There were two adults and a juvenile. The juvenile could fly, but it’s unlikely it could have made it so far inside the county unless it was born here.

Eggs or dependent young are definitive evidence of nesting.

Perhaps this juvenile crane could have survived without the adults. It was fully fledged.

But it was with the adults.

So … not quite conclusive, but combined with other observations, pretty persuasive.

I took my doubts to Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders. He’d helped me locate the cranes near Larimore, about a dozen miles south of my place near Gilby, N.D.

Here’s what he said:

“Before seeing these birds, I had been stubborn about not counting it as a breeding species on the Grand Forks County Checklist. …

“The Larimore three doesn’t prove breeding as conclusively as I would like because they could have flown in — but I think it much more likely that they nested close by.”

No doubt, it seems odd that so large a bird as the sandhill crane could escape observation in a landscape as open as the Red River Valley. Like other birds, they are shy and elusive at the nest, however, keeping to overgrown wetlands where they are effectively hidden.

Nearby nesters

Certainly, sandhill cranes have nested in our area. They are fairly common on the Minnesota side of the Red River Valley, at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and Roseau River Wildlife Management area, as well as places in between.

West of the Red River, in North Dakota, there are recent records at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County, roughly halfway across the state. Closer to Grand Forks, they’ve been reported from Edinburg in Walsh County.

Records from the frontier period are many. Robert O. Stewart lists these in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota.” One of his citations is from Grand Forks County. In 1915, sandhill cranes were “seen in swamps along the Turtle River near Larimore.”

The sandhill crane wasn’t compatible with advancing human civilization.

Here’s Stewart again:

“The local breeding populations of sandhill cranes declined rapidly during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the early 1920s, this species apparently had been entirely extirpated as a breeding bird from the state.

“The principal causative factors all related to activities of man, include hunting pressure by the white settlers and visiting sportsmen, habitat destruction due to agricultural development and the ‘scientific’ collecting of eggs, young birds and breeding adults by local hobbyists and by visiting ornithologists from the east.”

Hardly endangered

Despite this, the sandhill crane is hardly an endangered species. Today, it nests across the continent from Michigan and Wisconsin northwestward to the coast of the Bering Sea in Alaska. There are isolated populations in other areas, including northern Florida and central Oregon.

It is the northern nesters that are of most interest to us; these birds pass through North Dakota both spring and fall. Tens of thousands gather on the Platte River in Nebraska, producing one of the great spectacles of the bird world.

The call of the sandhill crane, a low, gurgling noise, is a kind of anthem of autumn.

The birds spend the winter months in New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

Come spring, they’ll pass through our area again — and perhaps a few will linger here, bolstering the evidence that sandhill cranes are a nesting species in Grand Forks County.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at