Sandhill crane migration

Sandhill Crane Migration

The Sandhill crane migration lands the birds at Barren River Lake in south central Kentucky where they spend the winter.

The soft touch of the three long toes delicately balance on the soft and soggy mud in the shallow water. The body extends four feet tall and supports a five foot wingspan. The telltale red foreheads contrast with the gray bodies of the Sandhill cranes.

Sandhill crane migration in corn field.
The four-foot tall Sandhill cranes are scattered throughout a cornfield foraging for food.
© Copyright 2019 Brad Saum/ – All rights reserved.

Their light weight enables efficient soaring to find food and roosting on the soft mud flats to rest at night. They travel together by day foraging the nearby fields for food and then the hundreds and even thousands of Sandhill cranes roost together at night relying on the mud flats to protect them.

Hundreds of birds in  Kentucky cornfield
Safety in numbers – hundreds and hundred of birds stay together while feeding.
© Copyright 2019 Brad Saum/ – All rights reserved.

Mud that quickly engulfs the paws of an approaching coyote, bogs down the powerful predator pounding towards its prey. The mud flats provide a barrier protecting the Sandhill cranes from attack. As added security, a few cranes are always awake and on full alert ready to warn others of impending danger. Just as the leader periodically rotates when migrating in the common “V” formation, the duty of the watchful sentinels rotates among the birds through the night.

Sandhill Cranes in Kentucky

Barren River Lake State Resort Park in south central Kentucky serves as the winter home for about 3,000 Sandhill cranes. As a man-made lake, the lower water level maintained in the winter typically provides ideal mud flats for the cranes. Coupled with all the surrounding corn fields for daytime feeding, Barren River Lake is ideal habitat.

Sandhill cranes in Kentucky
The Sandhill crane migration brings thousands of the birds to Kentucky.
© Copyright 2019 Brad Saum/ – All rights reserved.

A heart without dreams is like a bird without feathers.

Suzy Kassem, American writer

Barren River Lake State Resort Park

I was fascinated to learn an interesting tidbit about Barren River, specifically the origin of the name. Native Americans burned large expanses of forest in this area of south central Kentucky. The Native Americans discovered that with the trees and brush burned, lush grasses would flourish and attract buffalo.

Barren River Lake State Resort Park
Barren River Lake State Resort Park in south central Kentucky is the winter home to thousands of Sandhill cranes.
© Copyright 2019 Brad Saum/ – All rights reserved.

This early land and wildlife management ensured the buffalo, critical to the survival of the Native Americans would remain plentiful and in a predictable location in close proximity. When early European explorers arrived and saw the land with no trees, they incorrectly assumed the soil was not fertile and referred to the area as the barren land.

Red forehead on sandhill crane bird
The red forehead helps identify the Sandhill crane.

The Sandhill crane migration of thousands of birds occurs every November to Barren River Lake and the surrounding area. The cranes have adapted well to the cold and most only fly south to Iowa. Kentucky is as far south as any Sandhill cranes migrate before beginning the trek back to Minnesota and Canada in February.

eBay has Sandhill Crane artwork: 1942 Vintage AUDUBON BIRDS #261 “SANDHILL CRANE” Color Art Plate Lithograph

Wildlife is predictably unpredictable. Although seeing about a thousand Sandhill cranes proved to be a fun experience, the picturesque view of thousands of migrating birds chattering loudly and flying in to roost never really developed.

I enjoyed the adventure and will seek another opportunity to see the iconic Sandhill Crane migration.

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Barren River Lake State Park become daytime feeding areas for the Sandhill cranes during migration
Local farms surrounding Barren River Lake State Park become daytime feeding areas for the Sandhill cranes during migration.
© Copyright 2019 Brad Saum/ – All rights reserved.
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