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Sandhill Crane Hunting

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Like a big wingshot bird, the proposal by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission to open season on sandhill cranes in 2011 keeps flopping around in my head. People who object to hunting sandhill cranes do so for a number of reasons. However, we are generally characterized by advocates of hunting as being uninformed, leading with our hearts rather than our heads. Perhaps they’re right.

Sandhill cranes dropping into a Tennessee field. Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

I will confess to having trouble getting my head around the reasoning behind the Tennessee crane hunting proposal. Plant 750 acres of feed crops for waterfowl. Watch sandhill cranes join the ducks and geese in exploiting the superabundant food. Start a festival for people who enjoy observing the stately birds. Celebrate a festival for 17 years as the wintering crane population swells to 48,000, and watch as a portion of the flock ceases to migrate, sticking around to feed on early spring plantings of winter wheat. Cancel the festival, then shuffle its dates around, back off the food crops to 450 acres, and propose a hunting season on cranes. All the while, grant crop depredation permits, giving farmers permission to shoot cranes that stay around late enough to eat their germinating winter wheat. I confess I’m left scratching my head. I have an incomplete understanding of the wildlife management principles illustrated here. From my uninformed perspective, it seems ill-advised to offer a migratory bird population so much artificial food that it ceases to migrate as it's been doing since the Pleistocene. Is shooting about 2% of the population really the best answer?

When shooting starts on private land around the Hiwassee refuge, Tennessee ornithologists predict that cranes, along with ducks and geese, will make for the refuge. Cranes may be too dumb to divine that the corn managers planted was intended only for ducks and geese, but they are smart enough to avoid places where they’re being fired on. I've seen it suggested that this will actually benefit birders, providing better viewing on the refuge than they'd have were the cranes dispersed on private land. Well, here's something to think about. Concentrating a large population of cranes in a smaller area can result in overcrowding and disease. Birders know that. They want what's best for the birds, not for themselves. I can't imagine any birdwatcher I know saying, "Oh good! They're shooting cranes right outside the refuge! More cranes for ME!!"

What is needed here, it seems, is not more crowding but a natural dispersal of the population, encouraging them to move on south. Now, being a birdwatcher, I admit to being ignorant of the fine points of wildlife management, but what if Tennessee were to taper off the feeding program? Maybe the cranes would keep heading south when the food ran out. Silly, I know, but it’s just crazy enough--it might work. The converse certainly worked.

Tennessee is the first state in the Eastern Flyway to propose a hunting season on sandhill cranes. Kentucky announced its crane hunting season on December 6, 2010. I heard it on the radio as I was writing this post, stopping in mid-tap to stare at the speakers. And oddly, Kentucky isn’t accepting public comment. Have they observed the outcry over Tennessee’s proposal? Memo to Kentucky: Announcing that you’re not accepting public comment doesn’t stop people from calling and writing their legislators.

Oh, and birdwatchers might like to know that Wisconsin’s planning a sandhill crane hunting season, too. Wisconsin: home of the privately funded International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, where the big white whooping crane was snatched back from extinction. Imagine how Wisconsin’s thousands of self-described “craniacs” are going to feel about that. But we mustn’t lead with our hearts. We must accept the wisdom, the necessity of shooting sandhill cranes.

A sandhill crane falls near Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.    Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

The Eastern Flyway sandhill crane population has recovered from near extinction in the last 70 years—in our lifetime--and state game managers have taken notice. Their reasoning appears pretty simple: There are enough cranes around now to shoot some. My reasoning is simple too. Does that mean they must be shot? Is giving a small set of hunters one more bird species to aim at ultimately going to be worth the ill will and polarization of camps between the growing throngs of wildlife watchers and the shrinking ranks of hunters?  For the fact-checkers out there: The USFWS estimates that 33 states saw declines in hunting license sales over the last two decades. Massachusetts alone has seen a 50 percent falloff in hunting license sales in that period. Yes, hunting is declining. Maybe if we offer more species that can be shot...
So let's follow this line of reasoning. There are enough cranes out there now to shoot some without causing another population crash. All right then. There are surely enough red-tailed hawks sitting along the nation's highways to shoot some of them. Robins? Those things are everywhere, and tasty, too. And come to think of it, new great blue heron rookeries are popping up all over the place. A little fishy-tasting, but with the right marinade...

Ultimately, the proposal to hunt Tennessee’s sandhill cranes is about hubris. It’s about manipulating wild populations as we see fit, about tilting the balance of nature toward huntable species by feeding them artificial foods and encouraging them to hang around to provide us a little sport. Try as I might, I cannot cram the lanky four-foot length of a sandhill crane into the slot in my brain marked “Game Species.” They’re too tall, too graceful, too ancient and yes, much too magical. There goes my heart again. Head says: They reproduce too slowly, producing one colt per year if they’re lucky. Ducks and geese can lay a dozen eggs; a crane lays two, and only one colt usually survives. That youngster is still heavily dependent on its parents for guidance in its first winter of life, and yet we’re proposing to let hunters shoot right into those family units. For sport. For fun. For food, maybe, if they have enough strong marinade.  Pretty gamey, I’m told. I intend never to find out for myself.

Sandhill cranes with their colt.                                  Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

We should not be marinating the meat of sandhill cranes. We should be looking up at them alive and flying, our heads thrown back in wonder, gratitude and awe. We should be searching their cloud-gray numbers for the big white cranes who travel with them, and are at risk of being shot, their  precious genes squandered in the mud of a cornfield.

In my view, the great irony in this whole proposal to hunt cranes is that the majority of people who are aware cranes exist feel exactly as I do, vastly outnumbering those who would like to take a shot at one. Note to Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin: Those cranes you're proposing to shoot are everyone's cranes, not just yours. They may breed in Wisconsin and pass through the southern states, but they belong to everyone, and your proposal to let a small subset of hunters fire on them is not popular with the majority who want them left alone. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

People who believe strongly in their perceived right to hunt whatever they wish can be  persuasive in characterizing birders and wildlife watchers as soft-headed and silly for having an emotional connection to birds and animals, for being guided by heart and not head. I believe to my core that it is desirable to hold some species sacred. I feel that way about sandhill cranes because I have observed, from Nebraska to New Mexico, from Michigan to Ohio, that they are potent ambassadors for wild things and wild places to the many thousands of people who are moved by them. These are not necessarily birders, just ordinary people who are stirred by the sight and sound of cranes. Cranes, I submit, are worth infinitely more alive than dead. Just ask the director of the Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary on Nebraska's Platte River, where sandhill crane tourism brings 15,000 visitors from all 50 states and 46 foreign countries; brings more than $10 million into the local economy every year. All without firing a single shot. Wildlife watching is the fastest growing sector in tourism.

I'd love to do this experiment. Take 1,000 people who know what a sandhill crane is. What percentage of them do you think would want to bring one down with a gun? What percentage would simply want to watch one fly overhead? We haven't even begun to tap the tourism potential of live Eastern Flyway cranes, and states are already proposing to shoot them?

Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency posted an online survey in mid-November 2010 with a simple question: “Should sandhill cranes be hunted in Tennessee?” Two buttons: Yes and No. The survey was up for perhaps three days, and abruptly taken down without explanation. No results have been posted. In response to questions on “Tennessee’s Watchable Wildlife” Facebook page, the following appeared:

Your best bet to have an impact on the TWRA decision is to contact the TWRA commissioners with letters, phone calls, etc. At some point we'll provide the results of the survey, but keep in mind that it was not a well designed, scientific survey, it was biased in many ways and is not likely a very reliable source of information.

Birders, photographers, wildlife watchers: we don’t need SurveyMonkey to tell Tennessee what we think about opening a season on sandhill cranes. Comments period ends mid-January. A public meeting will be held Jan. 20 and 21 in Nashville, with an opportunity for public comments. Information: or 1-800-624-7406.

If you can't attend, please...Write them NOW. For the New Year, do something for the cranes.


Letters: Michael Chase, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission Chairperson/PO Box 50370/Knoxville, TN  37950 email:

Governor Bill Haslam, 1701 West End Ave., Suite 300, Nashville, TN 37203 (615) 254-4799

online comments to the Governor:


Very saddening to learn that these superb birds may again be shot. Thank you for beating the drum for some better future for a magnificent species. Our local population is growing, in a site straight out of Aldo Leopold's description of its Wisconsin counterpart. It would be heartbreaking to find that they could be shot legally.

Nick from Ottawa

Posted by Anonymous December 30, 2010 at 8:51 AM

Julie, As a craniac in Wisconsin my blood ran cold as I read your post. Do you have any ideas on who we can write, that is after we write to the TN folks you listed? THANKS for all you do

My guess from what you write is that the lobby in TN to hunt cranes is from the agriculture advocates. Farm lobbies are powerful and anything that threatens crops is fair game in their opinion. I don't think that anyone cares to hunt cranes because of cuisine. It's all about the wheat crop. The little devils are stickin' around and eatin' my new wheat crop. Ergo, I shoot them. As a Kentuckian I'm sure that's the reasoning here as well. Unfortunately, I've not found the state (or federal) legislature terribly responsive to opinions such as mine that have a liberal bent.

I'd start here, JP.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 101 S. Webster Street | PO Box 7921 | Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7921 | 608-266-2621

Ask them to whom your letters should be directed. The thing to know about hunting seasons is that by the time the Powers that Be in the state DNR (DEP, whatever) let us all know that they're "proposing" a hunting season, it's practically a done deal. Start making noise in WI now. Beat the drum and get their little secret out where everyone--bird clubs and ordinary citizens-- can turn it over and look at it. Write letters to your newspapers. Let the public know. Secrecy aids their cause. They don't WANT everyone else to know that a small group of hunters will be allowed to blast at cranes. It's the hubris I was talking about; the assumption that they "own" their state's wildlife and those of us who simply like to watch wildlife don't have a voice in it at all. Consumptive use is all they pay attention to. For now. That will, and must, change.

Kentucky tried to spring it on everyone in early December, saying they wouldn't be accepting public comment. I have a feeling, based on what's happening in TN, that that's going to backfire on them.

Thank you for caring. And thank you for writing. I can assure you that there's some fancy dancin' going on in TN right now. A lot more than they expected to have to do to make this "proposal" (or is it a decree?) fly. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens Jan. 20 when they announce their decision. I am certainly not getting my hopes up, but our voices will have been heard, and what happens in TN impacts what happens in KY and WI, too.


Nick, be assured Ontario's pushing for a season on cranes. See this article:

Already claiming agricultural damage from 500 cranes. We'll all starve if they don't kill a few. That's the most common justification for a hunting season, the one least likely to produce howls of outrage. But it's a thin one at best.

Stefanie, it may have to do with agricultural damage, but I sense that it also has a lot to do with offering something new and different to shoot--I suspect it has just as much to do with providing more fun for hunters. Only nine depredation permits were granted in TN last year (which allow farmers to shoot birds eating their winter wheat). And I'd point out that the birds wouldn't be around doing that if TN wasn't planting food crops for them. They'd be down in the Gulf states eating crawfish and waste corn. I don't think a crane should be "one more thing to shoot."

Wisconsin has been trying to get a crane hunt for a long time. I attended some of the public meetings in the '98-'01 time period when I lived up there. The meetings were 99% hunters and 1% birders. Whenever a state biologist or birder voiced opposition, they were shouted down and verbally abused by the hunters. It was all very frustrating.

Julie...I just published a book on New Brunswick naturalist Mary Majka - a passionate advocate for wildlife throughout her life - and this is the same reasoning she challenged back in the 60s when people were indiscriminately shooting endangered bald eagles and other birds of prey, then later robins and crows stealing blueberries from commercial fields.

You are perfectly right on several fronts...these are everyone's birds. And, as you say, "It’s about manipulating wild populations as we see fit, about tilting the balance of nature toward huntable species by feeding them artificial foods and encouraging them to hang around to provide us a little sport."

As in New Brunswick
(Canada) when the government was proposing hunting on Sundays, it posted a survey online for a couple days, but told no one but the hunting associations about it, then removed it within days.

Just when we think we are gaining ground as a species, we turn around and run in the other direction.

Have you anywhere you can submit your well-researched and finely written blog post for print publication?

When I woke up this morning I was still depressed by the "mysterious road threatening the Great Migration"as reported earlier in the week on the Today Show. Now I read about the Sandhill Crane hunting. Both events seem to be motivated by money. I have only seen sandhill cranes once and that was a family unit whose nest had been destroyed by natural predators in Yellowstone. As sad as that was, at least it was part of the natural order of things. Creating a hunting season for them is inexcusable.

Life is not respected in this country... human or animal. Until we unite our voices & DEMAND dignity be shown to ALL LIFE, both born & unborn... both human and animal... we will all be just spinning our wheels for nothing.

There are enough of us in this country to be quite a legion to contend with... but we are divided amongst ourselves on exactly *what* life should be protected. The "what" should be totally removed from the equation & in its place the words "all life" should be embraced!

This is a heartbreaking story... like all stories of disrespect for life are.


People like you may be thinking with their hearts, Julie, but anybody who shoots living creatures for fun is thinking with their guts, or possibly that reptilian level of the brain that also enjoys gory horror movies. If you don't need the game for food, shoot at some inanimate targets, and leave other sentient beings alone.

Posted by Anonymous December 31, 2010 at 8:10 AM

To make things worse, Wisconsin is getting a new head of DNR, Cathy Stepp. In a post on a conservative blog last year she said the people who work at the DNR tend to be " anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc". Later she called agency employees"unelected bureaucrats" who tend to "come up with some pretty outrageous stiff that the rest of us in the real world have to live with".

What kind of world will it be without Whooping Cranes, Karner Blue Butterflies etc. ?
Janet (JP)

I am a birdwatcher, native plant grower, and a Texas Master Naturalists volunteer currently at Anahuac National Wildliife. I live in Texas where many bird species are hunted, including turkeys, ducks, geese, snipe, and sandhill cranes.

I've also seen the Canada Goose disaster caused by artificially feeding them along their flyways until they seldom migrate as far as Texas and are dirty yard birds in the midwest.

I believe that hunting conserves species by keeping them in balance with their habitat. I also think that removing predators from the habitat is criminal. Sandhill cranes are prey for wolves, coyotes, foxes and bobcats but many of these animals are in short supply because people feel in their hearts that they are bad and have destroyed many leaving many of them threatened or extinct from areas they historically lived.

As a birdwatcher, I can pursue my hobby at very little cost and without helping to conserve wildlife. Hunters, on the other hand are specifically taxed to provide monies for habitat. And duck hunters have to buy a duck stamp which provides monies to get and manage habitat.

And once an animal is managed for hunting, it is carefully monitored so the species numbers stay high enough for hunting. For instance, if a species has suffered a bad breeding year, the bag limit will be reduced or, in some years, that species cannot be hunted. So, by managing for hunting, species are preserved.

And I've heard that something like eighty percent of a species dies in the first year of life. The population needs to be fairly stable from year to year in any one place to avoid overcrowding and eating out the food source, as well as becoming more susceptible to diseases.

For all these reasons I'm in favor of hunting even though I'll never feel the urge to personally go out and kill a sandhill crane.

But there may still be other areas to challenge. If the season is too early and the colts can't feed themselves or survive if one parent is killed, perhaps the season needs to be at a later time. Bag limits may need to be smaller than proposed, based on populations.

Julie, I stand corrected, especially after doing a google search for crane hunting and the word "tips" popped up. Seems there are already several states throughout the country, many more than you mentioned, that already allow crane hunting, ND among them. Reading some of the comments on a crane hunting forum was truely eye-opening.

I also did a search for crane hunting in KY and found a wealth of articles, including one from Louisville Courier-Journal and a blog entry from James Brugger, an environmental writer for the Courier-Journal. From his standpoint it sounds like KY will pass as long as a majority of citizens don't object. But there's a year in the meantime to do just that.

Thanks for bringing up the issue.

It will be my first letter of the new year. Thank you for the heads up! Wonder if it will help to warn them I won't be spending my tourist dollars in states that shoot cranes.

Posted by Anonymous December 31, 2010 at 5:11 PM

Great blog Julie. I saw a crane hunt on TV from somewhere in the mid-west about 8 years ago. I couldn't believe that it was legal. There is no logic in this proposal at all. Thanks for a thorough exploration of the issues.

I have sent in my comments, using the link on your post. I hope "we" can make a difference!

Thanks, dear JZ for the incredible story and the contact info,the beautiful painting and perfectly descriptive string of words, like "cloud grey numbers".There's an image that does not conjure guns, thankfully. XXOOM.

Posted by Anonymous January 2, 2011 at 3:14 PM

Thanks for writing about this Julie. I agree with you and I am saddened to hear that sandhill cranes might be hunted in the Eastern flyway. I would like to point out that many of your arguments against sandhill crane hunts have also been used against aggressive mute swan management. Mute swans are a pretty captivating bird but I also would happy to hear if an effective management plan that removed every single one.

Posted by Anonymous January 2, 2011 at 6:18 PM

Thanks for writing, Anonymous. I'm glad you agree about crane hunting, but I'm scratching my head a bit here at the parallel you've drawn. Mute swans are a feral exotic for which control measures are often indicated; sandhill cranes are native and recovering from near extinction. Mute swans are not hunted for food or sport; sandhill cranes are. Exotic species control isn't really comparable to sport hunting. Nobody's shaking mute swan eggs for fun; they're doing it to keep the swans from chasing out native waterfowl and ruining their foraging habitat. And the reproductive potential of mute swans is enormous compared to that of the 20% of sandhill cranes that manage to raise one chick per year.

I wouldn't argue against controlling mute swans. I do argue against hunting sandhill cranes. And even if I wanted to argue against swan control, I wouldn't use the arguments I'm using against crane hunting.

In an "unofficial" poll sponsored last summer by a weekly sportman's newspaper here in Minnesota as to "yes" or "no" on whether Minnesota should institute a Sandhill Crane hunt in the fall, the results were a resounding "NO" when I and other birders in the state added our responses. Sadly, it did absolutely nothing to sway the DNR officials from their decision to institute the first Minnesota sandhill crane hunt in 2010.

I wish as birders we had more clout or at least could figure out some way to get the elected and DNR officials to listen to us. If it's all about $$, then create a license for "birding." I'll buy one right along with the next duck stamp that I purchase (even though I'm not a duck hunter!)

Sandhill Crane Hunting! My heart breaks. They are so tall and noble. We travelled to Phyllis Haehnle Audubon Sanctuary near Chelsea, Michigan this Fall. The sights and sounds of 4,000 sandhill cranes was such a blessing. What a shame if our farming community is supporting these hunts. Thanks for keeping us informed Julie. I am hoping Bird Watcher's Digest will be updating our birding friends. I will be writing my concerns. Happy New Year.

Posted by Anonymous January 6, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Here in Nebraska, we value the spring migration of these birds through our state.We are lucky that the Platte River is the natural gathering place for over half a million cranes, a sight that is undiscribable.The arriving cranes are leary of humans, likely from hunting in southern states.If any state values sandhill cranes as a tourist resourceat all, hunting should not be allowed.

Posted by Anonymous January 20, 2011 at 11:31 PM
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