Sandhill Cranes Reign on Reservoirs
Partnerships Help Create Refuge for Birds
Sandhill cranes are startling creatures.
Soft gray to cocoa brown, with the slouch and height of a lanky child, the birds grow as tall as 4.5 feet – among the tallest in North America.
And their voices. Their blasts are a cacophony of trumpets tuning up, preternatural honks like pterodactyl squawks. They echo a mile away.
Valley residents have the chance to see – and hear – flocks of these magnificent migratory birds each winter on TVA reservoirs and partner-managed refuges.
“We’re on the flyway,” Damien Simbeck, TVA senior program manager for Natural Resources Management west operations, said. “As long as the weather doesn’t get too bad and food is available … a lot of them stay here.”
Mighty Migratory Birds
People can identify sandhill cranes by their height, first. Then they can look for their bright red cap and shawl of feathers that, by migration’s end, looks shaggy and worn.
And with good reason.
These powerful birds, with a wide wingspan up to 7.5 feet, migrate thousands of miles each year to and from summer breeding grounds in south-central Canada and winter habitat in Florida.
They fly 200 to 300 miles every day. They’ve even been known to travel 500 miles in a single day if the wind is right.
It’s a time-tested journey.
Native American nations along these crane flyways have origin stories about the distinctive birds.
In Wisconsin, where cranes breed, the Menominee Nation includes a Crane Clan.
In North Carolina and Tennessee, a Cherokee story explains why the crane honks instead of sings during its characteristic dance.
And an 1,100-year-old carved crane head artifact found in Florida reveals cultural ties at the birds’ southern winter homes.
Despite their existence in North America for what scientists estimate is millions of years, sandhill cranes almost disappeared.
Habitat loss and overhunting decimated their populations. In the 1940s, only about 1,000 animals existed.
“In 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt established Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge … we wouldn’t even fathom the sight of a crane,” Nick Wirwa, wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
Then, federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act helped cranes recover.
In 1963, a single sandhill crane spent the winter at Wheeler. In 1992, there were three.
“(The population) began exponentially increasing throughout the 2000s,” Wirwa said.
About 20,000 sandhill cranes and 18 endangered whooping cranes now spend the winter at Wheeler each year.
“There are tens of thousands at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, too,” Simbeck said. “And hundreds at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge on Kentucky Reservoir.”
“It really is a spectacular sight to see such a magnificent bird show up by the thousands each fall,” Wirwa said.
There are so many sandhill cranes now because TVA, state and federal agencies have created ideal crane habitat.
While cranes historically flew over the area on their way to distant beaches, according to Simbeck, now sandhill cranes and other migrant birds rest all winter on wide reservoir shores.
“TVA draws down the water, which creates mudflats,” Mime Barnes, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife information specialist, said. “Because of that drawdown … and the confluence of the river (at Hiwassee), it’s ideal.”
Lowering the water level provides a safe, open area free from disturbance or predators as the birds sleep at night. And it offers a buffet for birds.
“Mudflats and sandbars created by TVA’s water level management … concentrate food resources like crawfish, fish and other aquatic organisms found in shallow water habitats,” Wirwa said.
While TVA manages the reservoirs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state agencies such as the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, actively manage the habitat that cranes use during the day.
They do it in part by working with farmers to plant grain – including wheat, milo, soybeans, corn, and millet – on refuge land.
“Grain crops replenish energy throughout the winter and the northbound spring migration,” Wirwa said.
The combination of TVA reservoirs and partner wildlife refuges makes life easier for sandhill cranes. And it means more birds now stick around for the season.
“(The refuges have) become essential stops on the cranes’ migratory path,” Hill Henry, TVA’s senior program manager for environment and energy policy, said.
Where Birders Flock
The resurgence of cranes means that majestic, bugling flocks await birdwatchers.
At Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, you can see the cranes up close. Nearby at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, high-tech spotting scopes that TVA helped install let you zoom in on the birds.
“I really enjoy first-time visitors when they hear the call and see how large the bird is,” Barnes said. “They don’t recognize that it’s right on their doorstep.”
All you need is a spotting scope, a camera or a pair of binoculars.
The cranes crowd on mudflats and fly to feed in fields at dawn, wheeling down to the water again at dusk. They soar high in the sky, seeming to hang as if suspended against the blue.
They’re a source of wonder.
“I always loved seeing that full (migration) cycle,” Barnes said. “It connects us to all these other places and all these other states. Even another country.”
Henry, a longtime birder and photographer, agreed.
“The migration, the great numbers of birds, the opportunity to see them – it’s one of the most significant and publicly accessible migratory events in our region,” he said.
Explore birdwatching opportunities in the seven-state region at TVA’s Birdwatching page.