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Scott Rall: What is that?

Scott Rall

Daily Globe Outdoors writer

There was a movie many years ago that starred Steve Martin. I can’t remember the name, but there was about a 5-minute section where he asked himself over and over the question, “What is that?” He was sure he figured it out, and after several possible answers he would again ask, “What is that?”

It was great humor.

My wife Kristine and I had one of those moments a week ago on Saturday on a motorcycle ride up to the Brainerd area. I try really hard to ride only the back roads. They consist mostly of county oil roads, many of them scenic byways if I get lucky. The traveling is much slower, so you can’t do this if you are in a hurry. Most of these roads are marked by a special sign.

As we were tooling along at about 45 mph I saw something standing right in the middle of the road. I decreased speed and, as I came closer, got ready to stop in order to avoid a crash. What I saw I have only seen on the ground in Nobles County one time. It was a sandhill crane.

These are one cool bird and stand over four feet tall and can have a wing span of between 5-6 feet. They are brown and look like a huge stork.

They always remind me of the stork in the pickle ads for Vlasic. I saw one on the ground in Nobles County two years ago and watched it with binoculars for 20 minutes.

There were two on the road, and as they walked into the ditch I saw four more. I was very close. They stood only about 20 feet away. I had never before been this up close and personal to this amazing creature.

They migrate overhead all the time in the fall but they rarely ever stop here, and I can’t explain why.

Even if you can’t tell by sight from their altitude that they are cranes, it is easy to tell by listening to their vocals. They sound nothing like geese and the sound is very unique. Cranes, like many other animals, were just about wiped out 100 years ago. There are many different sub-species of cranes and one of those sub-species was reduced to only 1,000 birds. As man came to its senses and started caring about such things, they now number over 100,000.

The lesser sand hill crane is much more plentiful, and they now number between 400,000-450,000 birds. It was only after these populations had recovered to a level that they were no longer in any danger did Minnesota and other states start to allow a limited hunting season on them. Season dates and limits are monitored by different state game agencies very closely to allow for a harvest of some birds without any long-term damage to their numbers.

Most crane hunting takes place in North and South Dakota, but Minnesota hunters in west central Minnesota did harvest some birds in the first few years of season. We will never be a big destination for crane hunters, as they are not that plentiful in our state and most hunting opportunities are offered by migrating flocks.

If you travel to the northern part of the state you can see cranes with regularity. They nest in wetlands and bog type areas and we don’t have hardly any of this type of habitat left in this part of the state. Both mom and dad do the work and care for the young till about 10 months of age.

The young band together in non-reproducing groups called survival groups until they mature and start their own reproduction efforts between the ages of 3-7 years. They have a life expectancy of seven years, so some might never mate.

They are predated on by all kinds of animals like fox, raccoons, bobcats, wolves, and coyotes. They are also eaten by birds of prey like owls, hawks and the like. They are even preyed upon by my least favorite bird, the crow, which will eat the eggs or the young birds. This is another reason to keep crow populations low.

They say mom or dad will attack predators by kicking with their feet or stabbing with their bill. It is said that the bird is powerful enough to pierce the skull of small mammalian predators who threaten the young. Nature sure is resourceful when backed into a corner.

The crane is one more success story that followed man’s decimation of many animal species over the last 150 years. Cranes will most likely never become one of the area’s most popular game birds but we are doing a good enough job managing them to bring them back to population levels that keep them from ever being threatened again. Cranes like almost all wildlife still has many challenges.

Habitat loss and continued development will most likely be the reason for any animal population that would be in decline in North America. Grasslands are disappearing across the plains at an extraordinary rate due to row crop conversion, and this trend looks not to be changed any time soon.

Human numbers expand and we take up more space and need more food. The more food argument is harder to swallow when we use 40 percent of all the corn raised to burn as ethanol in your car.

Hunting cranes in limited numbers will never have an impact on their overall population level. The following statement of fact is hard to believe for non-hunting folks. There is more game, fish and wildlife in North America today because of hunters and fisherman than there would be if hunters and fisherman did not exist.

For example, the local Pheasants Forever Chapter is responsible for 30 parcels of land that exist today and are managed solely for the benefit of game, fish and wildlife. The parcels have been acquired over a 30-year period and total over 3.8 million in habitat dollars invested by the chapter and its partners.

If pheasant hunters did not hunt these birds, who would have provided the money and volunteer hours to make this fact a reality?

The reality exists throughout the entire pheasant range. The answer is nobody. These lands and their habitats are what sustain and increase the pheasant populations that exist today because of hunters and their supports.

I may never bag a sand hill crane but if I ever get the chance and am successful, I will cherish them as one more species that is being properly managed primarily with money provided by my hunting license revenue. Consider purchasing a hunting license today even if you never intend to hunt. Your money will be well used to protect and preserve wildlife and wildlife habitat today and in the future. You can then be one of those folks who are credited for benefiting wildlife and their habitats.