The Sandhill Crane has become a common sight nowadays in and near Otter Creek Marsh in southern Tama County. A sighting of this bird here is notable considering the fact that the bird is not commonly seen in Iowa. Sandhills can be seen throughout the marsh and in agricultural fields near the marsh.
The Sandhill is a native Iowa bird; its ancestors have been here for quite a while. The oldest Sandhill fossils date back to 2.5 million years. By the late 1800’s the Sandhill had been eliminated from Iowa due to habitat loss and overharvest. As historic wetland habitats like that found at Otter Creek Marsh were brought back to Iowa the Sandhill returned. Today, the Sandhill can be found in Iowa where it nests in 27 counties.
Sandhill cranes are one of two cranes found in North America. The common name of the Sandhill refers to habitat like that at the Platte River on the edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills. The annual early spring gathering of sandhills on the Platte River in Nebraska is among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent, with over a quarter million birds present at one time.
Cranes are a family of birds which are large, long-legged, and long-necked. Unlike the similar-looking but unrelated herons, cranes fly with necks outstretched, not pulled back in an S-shape. Sandhills and herons are both found at Otter Creek Marsh.
The Sandhill Crane averages 37 inches in length. Both the gray adult and brown immature are recognized by their large size and uniform coloration. The adult has a red cap on its head. The flight of a Sandhill is an alternation of gliding and flapping.
The Sandhill is a migrant statewide in Iowa where it arrives in April. Sandhill courtship includes an elaborate “dance” with birds spreading their wings and leaping into the air while calling.
Annually, Otter Creek Marsh usually averages about four nesting pairs of sandhills. The marsh was the first place in Iowa where, in 1992, Sandhill Crane reproduction was documented in Iowa. They nest in marshes, swamps and wet meadows. The nest, built by both sexes, is placed on a mound of dead vegetation surrounded by water. Two olive or buff colored eggs are laid in late April or early May and both sexes incubate for 29 to 32 days. The young leave the nest within a day after hatching and can fly at 65 to 75 days old. Fewer than 30 percent survive to take flight. Young sandhills remain with parents for 9 to 10 months and accompany them during migration. They can live for 35 years in the wild.
Sandhills eat small rodents, frogs, insects, worms, snails, young birds and eggs, seeds, grass shoots, grain (especially corn), bulbs, berries, lichen, and aquatic plants.
The call of the Sandhill is a low, loud, musical rattle which can be a startling sound to the listener when in close proximity to the bird and its presence is not known. Numerous times while walking through the marsh early in the morning, especially during the waterfowl seasons, I have been startled when I have unknowingly walked up to this bird and it gives off its call.
The Iowa DNR is currently in the process of placing 10 GPS transmitters on sandhills in order to learn about their behavior patterns and habitat requirements.
The Otter Creek Marsh Wildlife Area, created in 1960 and managed by the DNR, is a mix of wetlands, reconstructed prairie and floodplain timber. The area’s 1,200-acre wetland attracts more than the Sandhill Crane. Many animal and plant species also call the marsh home. Some of the animal species found at the marsh include swans, ducks, geese, eagles, turtles, otters, frogs, salamanders, fish, numerous invertebrates, etc.; all are worth a trip to experience.