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Mississippi sandhill crane one of world's rarest

Ever since 2002 it seems I am seeing more sandhill cranes as they migrate through the Mid-South. Sighting 10 cranes six years ago was a first for me in more than 50 years of waterfowling.

They have such a rattling, loud and resonating call that alerts one to their migration. It has been described as the voice of the Pleistocene.

Besides their calling as they migrate, they fly a short distance and then (what I call it) circle the wagons for a while, fly on ahead before circling the wagons again. Their calling and flight characteristics leave no question as to their makeup.

Those fortunate enough to have witnessed the staging area of the spring migration of sandhill cranes along the Platte River in central Nebraska and to have witnessed a crane dance will tell you that it is truly one of the wonders of the world.

Crane dance! Alone or in groups, cranes will bow their heads, leap in the air, and throw sticks or other “nesting material.” Cranes also have many interesting threat displays and other ritualized postures. If you ever decide to witness this spectacle, you should plan your visit between March 1 and the middle of April.

I was recently stunned to discover there is a subspecies of sandhill cranes that breeds and doesn't migrate. Of the six subspecies found in North America, the Cuban, Florida, and Mississippi are non-migratory, and the Canadian, greater and lesser are migratory. The Mississippi subspecies is intermediate in size among the sandhill cranes and has darker gray plumage and black legs.

The Mississippi sandhill crane was recognized as a distinct subspecies in 1972. Currently endangered, it is one of the rarest crane populations in the world and was listed in the 1968 list of Rare and Endangered Wildlife of the United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added it to the endangered species list in 1973, and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR was the first refuge established under the Endangered Species Act. It was created in 1975 because of issues related to habitat loss to construction of an interstate highway.

Historically, the Mississippi sandhill crane was found in semi-open, wet savanna habitat that was once prevalent in southern Jackson County. It is the last home of the endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes. It comprises some 19,000 acres in four separate units and is part of the Gulf Coast Refuge.

The population has increased from about 30 to more than 120 birds, in part due to the largest and longest captive breeding/crane reintroduction effort in the world. They are captively bred at White Oak Conservation Center in Florida and the Audubon Institute in Louisiana, and chicks are released on the refuge. Captively bred cranes are now a majority of the population, and some have begun breeding naturally.

The true story of the NWR involves the hard work and dedication of a leader in conservation: Jacob (Jake) Valentine Jr. He was a champion of the Mississippi sandhill crane and is considered the “father” of the refuge.

One of his early assignments was an investigation into the effects of the building of Interstate 10 on the sandhill crane population in Jackson County. With severe habitat decline and other problems, he realized the cranes were at great risk and called for a refuge. Without him, there would simply be no refuge. He continued his involvement with the cranes and the refuge after his retirement in the 1980s until his death in 2000.

Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac, 1949, said: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”

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