CRANE CREEK — A five-year study of Ohio’s sandhill cranes revealed a surprise: the state is home to more of the birds than biologists originally believed.
“Numbers (of cranes) are expanding. We find new pairs all the time,” said Dave Sherman, wetland habitat coordinator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
That discovery proved an added benefit of the study, he noted.
The agency initiated the sandhill monitoring project in 2010 after Tennessee and Kentucky announced plans for limited hunting seasons on the leggy waders. Officials wanted to lean how hunting in Tennessee and Kentucky would affect Buckeye birds migrating south for the winter.
At that time, Sherman believed Ohio, where the cranes are listed as endangered, was home to about 20 breeding pairs. He now knows that number is far larger.
Thus far, he’s learned at least 50 pairs nested in Ohio last year and not all of the birds migrate south. Those that do appear unscathed by limited hunting in Tennessee and Kentucky.
“No Ohio-banded birds were killed in Kentucky or Tennessee this year,” Sherman said.
Since 2010, DNR biologists have tracked a total of 35 cranes via radio transmitters, the DNR’s Dave Kohler told the Ohio Wildlife Council in January.
Only one came to an untimely end when it was shot in Michigan on a nuisance permit, Kohler said.
Each solar-powered transmitter is attached to a bird’s leg by a plastic leg band and will provide data for 18 to 30 months, depending on where the animal wades.
Currently, Sherman is tracking seven birds with active monitors. Five left Ohio last fall for Florida, while two decided to tough out the Ohio winter at Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Areas.
“They are staying put — polar vortex or no polar vortex,” Sherman laughed.
One migrant crane was in Florida by early January. Four others were wintering at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Tennessee where as many as 40,000 sandhill cranes from all over the Eastern U.S. gather to rest and winter-over annually.
Locals there celebrate a Sandhill Crane Festival each January. But waterfowl hunters rarely join in the fun since masses of cranes tend to obliterate the food supplies of their favorite targets — ducks and geese.
Tennessee and Kentucky tip-toed into crane hunting as pressure from waterfowlers increased. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will crunch kill data from Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as results of Ohio’s study, to determine if hunting will continue.
An estimated 60,000 to 87,000 sandhill cranes live in the eastern U.S. They nest as far north as Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New England in the spring, then migrate south to Georgia and Florida in the winter, Sherman said.