Enter the greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida), lovingly dubbed the Tennessee sandhill crane, as it is the only one of six North American sandhill crane subspecies to migrate through or make a winter home right here in Tennessee. Each year, an average of 29,000 sandhill cranes winter across the great state of Tennessee with two primary areas of congregation. One area is located at Hop-In Refuge on the Obion River in West Tennessee. The second is a bit closer to home here in East Tennessee on an island located at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers known as Hiwassee Island. Much more than just a chunk of earth, Hiwassee Island, which is managed by the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, is a wonderland of biodiversity, attracting the migratory waterfowl, among other critters, with its marshes, wide shorelines and shallow waters. Who knew the burgeoning real estate market of East Tennessee extended to these migratory birds, as well?
Thousands upon thousands of these Tennessee sandhill cranes, over 10,000 to be exact, start arriving at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in late October, essentially taking over its 6,000 acres (2,500 areas of land and 3,500 acres of water) for the winter. It is this migratory move to the refuge by the sandhill cranes that offers one an opportunity to get outdoors and experience a truly unique performance by the stars of the island as they strut their stuff.
Sandhill cranes that migrate through or winter in portions of Tennessee travel from their northern homes scattered across the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, throughout the Canadian tundra to Alaska. These “snowbirds” make up a large proportion of the eastern sandhill crane population, which is estimated at a minimum of 89,000 and is considered the second largest sandhill crane population in the world. Pretty impressive numbers, considering the fact that of all the crane species worldwide, sandhill cranes are the most populous and wide-ranging, with an estimated population exceeding 1 million.
A gray long-necked, long-legged bird, the greater sandhill crane (aka Tennessee sandhill crane) stands over 4 feet tall, weighs between 10 to 14 pounds and has a wing span of 6 feet, making it one of the largest birds found in Tennessee. Some unique characteristics of this sandhill crane subspecies include a tuft of feathers at the rump, a red spot on top of the head (which is actually skin, not feathers) and bright white cheeks. Interestingly, not much separates the girls from the boys when it comes to appearance. The only difference being that the male is slightly larger than the female.
The call of the sandhill crane has been described as one resembling a trumpet or bugle and carries for over a mile. (Ask any number of nearby human neighbors, and they will tell you how loud and just what a noisemaker their call really is!) Sandhill cranes mate for life, and engage in “unison calling,” during which the cranes stand close together, and for lack of a better word, perform a duet.
Sandhill cranes are omnivores, enjoying a scrumptious (well, scrumptious for cranes) diet of berries, seeds, insects, cultivated grains and small mammals found both on and below the ground’s surface, down in the mud and muck. Long-lived, these birds can reach an age of 20 years plus, but interestingly enough, they are some of the poorest reproducers in the bird world of North America. Not usually successful with reproduction until 5 to 7 years of age, the sandhill crane only produces a clutch of one to two eggs, and only one in three nests successfully gets a chick to migration age. Both mom and dad take turns incubating the eggs, with an incubation time of anywhere from 29-32 days.
Now that the biology lesson is complete, it begs the question: If Tennessee winters are less then palatable for some humans and other bird species, why would a migratory bird, a species that is collectively and overwhelmingly known for flying south to find warm temperatures for the winter, decide to take up a winter residency here? Tennessee is undoubtedly warmer than, say, Alaska, but it ain’t Miami Beach, so what gives? Corn. Yes, corn, that’s what gives. The greater sandhill cranes only started wintering in East Tennessee in the 1990’s after they found corn growing around Hiwassee Island. Corn was planted by the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge as part of a conservation plan, and what a successful plan it is! These massive migratory birds have been wintering here ever since their discovery of the golden crop that is so delicious to their palates, and there is no indication that they plan to change the location of their winter residence any time soon.
These fine feathered friends like to assemble near the observation platform at the refuge, making it the best spot to watch them in action along with a variety of other bird species, such as the endangered whopping crane and bald eagle to name a few. Be on the lookout for the young birds that made it to migration age. Perhaps a mated pair performing a “duet” can be spotted, too.
Starting in mid-February, these winged visitors begin their exodus to the north. Before they leave each year, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, in conjunction with the Cherokee Memorial Park, located adjacent to refuge, host “The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival” at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. This event not only celebrates these transient residents but also focuses attention on the rich wildlife and Native American history of the area, as well. Normally held in the middle of January when sandhill crane numbers are at their peak, this year, sadly, the in-person event has been cancelled due to the pandemic, but has been replaced with an online version starting January 11.
COVID-19 may have put the kibosh on the in-person Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival for 2021, but the show put on by the spectacular sandhill cranes can’t be stopped. Experience it daily from the observation deck, which remains open to guests at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. Grab a hot beverage and pack a snack and make sure to visit before the end of March when the cranes are all but gone!
Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is located off Highway 60 in Meigs County on Priddy Lane. From Chattanooga there are three ways to arrive at Highway 60:
I-75 north to Exit 25 (Cleveland), west on Highway 60 (take a right at end of exit),
Highway 58 north to Highway 60, west on Highway 60 (take a left at intersection of two roads),
Highway 27 north the Dayton, east on Highway 60 (take a right just past the Zaxby’s shopping center area). Hint- there is a huge brown road sign indicating the way.
Once on Highway 60, if traveling from I-75 (Cleveland) or Highway 58, turn RIGHT onto Shadden Road and from Dayton, turn left. Proceed one mile, turning right onto Blythe Ferry Road, take the first left onto Priddy Lane and follow the signs.
by JD Harper
JD Harper is a local author. “Glint”, her debut novel, is set in Chattanooga amid its rich Civil War history and rock climbing culture. Visit jd-harper.com.