MDC notes rare sandhill cranes nesting at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge

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Mound City, Mo. – A pair of sandhill cranes with two young chicks, called colts, gave nature photographer Dan Staples a smile and fine photographs on June 4 at the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Holt County. Their interaction on a marsh flat resembled dancing. Sandhill cranes are uncommon in the state and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) lists them as a species of conservation concern. A tall, gangly, slate gray bird with a red crown on their heads, nesting pairs are even more rare than the occasional sighting in the state of migrants in autumn and late winter.

“eBird data shows them inhabiting Loess Bluffs pretty consistently year to year and throughout the breeding season, but our last heritage record for confirmed breeding was 2006,” said Dillon Freiburger, MDC natural history biologist. “Statewide they are considered a rare breeder and loess bluffs might be one of a few places they consistently attempt to nest at.”

Staples lives at Mound City and visits the nearby wetlands at Loess Bluffs almost daily.

“It seems each year there is a pair that comes back,” he said. “The last two years there’s always one or two colts.”

Staples said the colts he has seen may not survive due to predation or flooding. They feed in wetlands and open fields. Mated pairs make nests from plant materials in shallow water.

In June, he photographed the pair and two colts in the refuge’s Snow Goose Pool, but he also photographed a pair with one colt in the Mallard Marsh.

Sandhill crane sightings are rare in Missouri, said Kristen Heith-Acre, MDC ornithologist. But a few nests have been documented starting in the early 1990s.

The cranes were very common in Missouri until the late 1890s, according to Mark Robbins, ornithology collection curator at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. Robbins summarizes both historical accounts and data from recent confirmed sightings in his publication, Birds of Missouri, Their Distribution and Abundance.  From the early 1900s until the 1990s the cranes were scarcely seen in the state. But since then, occasional nests have been documented at the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge as well as at wetlands at MDC’s Grand Pass, Eagle Bluffs, and Perry conservation areas. Still, they’re rare. Although migrants do pass through in autumn and late winter on both the eastern and western sides of the state.

Robbins notes that migrating sandhill cranes seen in western Missouri are likely from populations that breed in Canadian provinces west of Hudson Bay and migrate in large numbers through the Great Plains, such as noted migrations through Nebraska and Kansas. Sandhill cranes in eastern Missouri may come from populations that breed in northern Midwestern states and southern Ontario. Missouri is in between the two major migration routes.

According to MDC’s online Field Guide, historically flocks of sandhill cranes used to gather to feed at migration staging areas along the Missouri and Grand rivers. Increasing crane populations in upper Midwestern states are improving the chances that Missouri may someday have a small resident breeding population.

For more information about sandhill cranes in Missouri, visit