Sandhill Crane Dancing
Sandhill Cranes are known for their complex courtship dancing skills. Dancing facilitates strong committed pair bonding and allows rivals to assess the status and fitness of one another throughout their long lives. Parents educate their chicks, while they are dependent young, by dancing with them for the entire first year of their life. After leaving their parents, the chicks form nomadic flocks with other juveniles and non-breeding adults. In these flocks, adolescent cranes practice dancing for years and use these skills when they carefully select a mate.
The strong pair bond, which results from courtship dancing and trumpeting, is necessary for cooperation, hierarchy, reproduction, and survival. However, sandhill cranes are often seen dancing and vocalizing for no apparent reason. For example, captive cranes will dance in good weather and penned birds dance when they are released from their enclosures. Even two-day-old chicks dance playfully on their awkward and gawky long legs. Perhaps this is merely the exuberant reflection of a state of mind, or heart, that we as humans attribute to the 'joy of life.'
The remarkable dancing of sandhill cranes is systemic, contagious, addictive, and enthusiastic. Long intricate displays frequently involve the circling of one crane around a stationary partner or the mutual rotation of both partners. Although the dancing is most common in the breeding season, sandhill cranes can engage in their spontaneous dance displays throughout the entire year. The sequences of coordinated dance steps are often seen at summer nesting territories, but are also seen more rarely at roosting and staging sites.
Courting cranes are magnificent as they stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air in a graceful and energetic dance. Successfully paired sandhill cranes are strictly monogamous and typically mate for life. Juvenile sandhill cranes begin to select their mates between the age of two and five years of age, and remain paired for decades. Because of the stability of their lifelong relationship and its benefits, sandhill cranes are long-lived and commonly survive 20 or more years in the wild.
At the end of the breeding season as the fall progresses, bonded pairs migrate south together, to their wintering grounds, often accompanied with one surviving fledged colt (or sometimes, but less often two). The family will then migrate back together to their northern natal territory that they faithfully occupy and defend from breeding season to breeding season.
The beauty and elegance of the sandhill crane is unforgettable and has inspired people from many cultures around the world. Their annual migrations are eagerly awaited by those who are fortunate to witness the flocking cranes along their dangerous journey. In many communities, celebrations and festivals have been organized to pay tribute to this migration event and bring tourism and revenue to their respective communities.
The compelling attributes of this ancient species have made them an important part of the multi-billion dollar bird watching industry that continues to expand each year. With the economical and political influence of bird hobbyists, the sandhill crane population has a powerful ally to fight off and end unwarranted attacks by misguided special interests, and our voluntary donated fundraising dollars [24 million as of 2017] through Michigan Non-Game Fund "pays" for our non-game birds!
Sources, including but not limited to, Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary, Cranes: A Natural History of Bird Crisis by Janice M. Hughes, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Songbird Protection Coalition