Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014

During the big sandhill crane migration spectacle each spring, about 600,000 cranes stop by to visit the Platte River.  Most of them stick around for a few weeks, put on as much body fat as they can, and then head north to nesting grounds.  However, a very low percentage of cranes never get to leave.  Some are killed by powerlines or predators, others just die of old age or other ailments.  We see these dead birds here and there through the spring, and so do the predators and scavengers that take advantage of the abundant food source.

Our crew stumbled upon a dead crane this week, and before the scavengers got to work on it (much) I took advantage of the opportunity to get some close up photos.  It’s not often I get this close to a crane, and I’m guessing the same is true for most of you.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.  As always, you can click on an image to see a larger and sharper version of it.

The combination of gray and brown feathers on the wing are particularly attractive.  The gray is the natural color of the crane’s feathers, but they stain their feathers by spreading iron-rich soil on them.  I’ve actually watched them do this in our restored wetlands, where streaks of iron deposits can be seen in bare sand.  In places where the sand is saturated when groundwater is high and dry when groundwater falls, the iron in the sand rusts and turns a deep reddish brown.  We use those rusted iron deposits as indicators when we’re deciding how deep to excavate wetlands during the restoration process, but they’re also a great place for cranes to find staining compound!

Given the propensity of humans to dye their gray hair other colors, we probably shouldn’t wonder at cranes doing the same kind of thing.  At least cranes can claim (legitimately) they’re doing it for camouflaging purposes.

Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

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Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

While the wing feathers were very pretty, the head of the dead crane was the most interesting to examine up close.  Some of you may know that the red patch on the head of a sandhill crane is not made up of red feathers, but is actually a (relatively) bald patch.  The red cap is a sign of maturity for these cranes – birds hatched last year don’t yet have one.

In cranes, at least, “crane-pattern baldness” is a good thing.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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9 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014

  1. Ronald Cress says:

    Wonderful shots and interesting write-up about staining the feathers.

  2. Kim says:

    Beautiful, thank you!

  3. Noelle Hart says:

    Thanks for sharing! I didn’t know about the staining behavior. It sent me on a little web-surfing adventure to learn more.

  4. June Keibler says:

    Chris, do you sell any of your photos — these feathers are so beautiful that I would love to frame one and hang it where I could see it everyday. I’ve often thought that sandhill cranes bestow “good medicine” when we are fortunate enough to see them overhead.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      June, Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. No, I really don’t sell prints. Too much hassle and not enough volume to make it worth that hassle. Sorry about that. If you like sandhill cranes and great photos of them, though, you should really visit Michael Forsberg’s website. He DOES sell photos. http://shop.michaelforsberg.com/collections/sandhill-cranes

      • James McGee says:

        Michael Forsberg was on the NBC evening news last night talking about the sandhill cranes along with a lady from the National Audubon Society. I was looking for you, but I was surprised that you were not featured.

  5. Pingback: Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014 | Gaia Gazette

  6. Pingback: Colouring Feathers | The Field Naturalist Ballarat

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