Many do not realize that each fall, one of our greatest wildlife spectacles happens right here in Indiana. It takes place at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, located near the small town of Medaryville, about an hour’s drive northwest of Kokomo.
As the air turns brisk and leaves begin morphing into their brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow, thousands of sandhill cranes begin congregating on J-P’s shallow marsh areas on their journey south. These Hoosier wetlands are one of the largest resting places in the United States for these huge clattering birds. Cranes are birds of open grasslands, meadows and wetlands, and the sky literally swarms with them on their return to Hoosier soil.
“The birds are coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada,” said J-P property manager, Jim Bergens. “We have the perfect habitat and often times migrating cranes may spend several weeks here, which is why we build such huge numbers.”
“We never knew about it until we read it in one of your columns,” said Kokomo’s Mary Strand, who now makes several trips annually with her husband, Paul, to J-P.
“It’s such a short, beautiful drive and to see this take place in Indiana is amazing,” Paul added.
Standing nearly 4 feet tall on slender legs, these birds sport a red forehead, white cheeks and long dark pointed bill. Their wingspans push 7 feet, making them one of the largest bird species.
The first big push usually takes place in October. These early arrivals are harbingers of even higher numbers which usually peak by mid-November. During their fall migration, some 13,000 to 16,000 birds make Indiana their short term home. The highest population estimate of 32,000 cranes occurred during the 1991 migratory season. Currently, more than 3,000 birds gather at the fish and wildlife area daily, but that number is expected to grow.
Gregarious in nature, these raucous birds can be seen soaring over Indiana skies in high flying V’s or circles. Many times they can be heard before being seen. Cranes have unique unmistakable voices that can be heard for miles when in flight. Some people describe it as a long rolling rattle.
The best place to view the sandhills is from the handicapped accessible observation towers, next to an area know as Goose Pasture. Although cranes can be seen throughout the day, the best time to witness their huge numbers is a few hours after dawn and at sunset.
At sunrise cranes leave the resting marsh in gigantic, noisy flocks to gather in Goose Pasture where they mingle and gab loudly before taking flight on their 7-foot wingspans for short flights to nearby feeding areas. About sunset, they return on full bellies to socialize before flying off to roosting areas.
One of the birds’ most striking and peculiar behaviors is the dance they perform. The humorous sequence begins with the bird bowing low, then jumping into the air. The crane then settles back to the ground, sometimes throwing leaves and small twigs over its shoulder.
This routine is amusing, especially when they decide to perform this dance with their own shadow. Scientists believe this routine is a way to create new friendships or possibly reaffirming existing ones.
The Jasper-Pulaski FWA is located in a region once famous for the vast Kankakee Marsh. These wetlands consisted of more than one million acres of reeds, ponds and bogs. In the 19th and early 20th century the marsh was drained to make way for agriculture. Today, several thousand acres remain.
Revenues used in land acquisition, development, operation and maintenance of Jasper-Pulaski, as well as other fish and wildlife areas, are derived from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Funds also are derived from the federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs to promote and aid fish and wildlife restoration. These funds are derived from taxes levied on hunting and fishing equipment. This is just one area where Indiana hunters and anglers are proud to provide this property for the enjoyment of all people.
Information, including daily migration numbers, can be obtained by contacting Jasper-Pulaski FWA at 219-843-4841.
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.