A Sighting of Sandhill Cranes can be Good for You and Science, too!

By Alyssa Nyberg, Restoration Ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands

Have you ever been out in nature and said “Whoa, that is so cool!,” and then followed it up with a “I wonder why”? Well, you may find it hard to believe but your observations about nature have the power to help not only you, but science, too!

This spring, I was driving through Kankakee Sands on a road that I have driven down at least 15,000 times in my twenty years of working at Kankakee Sands. Lo and behold, there before eyes were more than three hundred sandhill cranes standing in a Kankakee Sands wetland.  I had never seen a single crane in this particular area in my 20 years, and now I’m seeing an entire flock of them!

I was shocked, overjoyed and wonderfully mystified all at the same time. To the dog in the truck with me I said something like “Whoa, would you look at that?!”

Seeing just one sandhill crane Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is a treasure. The stately, slender, four-foot-tall birds are covered in the most beautiful slate grey feathers and have a bright red patch of feathers just above their beak. Seeing an entire flock is a windfall!

Photo by Shari McCollough.

The sandhills in the marshy meadow weren’t just standing still. They were feeding on seeds, berries, tubers, insects, snails and small amphibians. Some were preening their feathers with their long beaks. Others were performing their courtship dances – the spreading of wings, graceful jumping, leaping, head pumping and bowing. Sandhill cranes mate for life, so they put their everything into this dance! The entire scene was mesmerizing.

And then a few of the sandhill cranes lifted off the water and took flight – their legs and necks outstretched and their melodic trumpeting calls that carry over miles, flying just a few feet above my vehicle. After experiencing that, I upgraded my Whoa to an awe-inspired Wow!

As it turns out, that feeling of awe, the one we feel when we see a sandhill cranes or any one of the many millions of other beautiful things in nature, is really good for you, and good for science too!

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley has written a book entitled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. According to Keltner’s research, the feeling of awe triggers a slowing of our heart rate, a deepening of our breathing, and it releases the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel such things as love, trust and empathy. What great and free health benefits just from being awed by the natural world!

Often, after exclaiming Wow!, my mind usually turns to ask Why? In the case of the sandhills showing up en masse at Kankakee Sands for the first time, I had so many questions. Why here? Why this year? Will they stay the summer? Will they breed and raise young here?

We know that in the spring, the sandhills migrate through Indiana from their overwintering areas in Florida, Texas or Mexico where they spend their winters. They are on their way to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to raise young in open wetlands, marshes, lakes, wet meadows and wet prairies.

Photo by Shari McCollough.

It’s well known that sandhills gather in great numbers in November at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, some thirty-five miles east of Kankakee Sands. In some years, 30,000 cranes congregate! But they are not known for gathering here at Kankakee Sands.

In years past we have had a handful of sandhill cranes stopover at Kankakee Sands during migration in the spring and fall. We’ve even been so lucky as to have had a couple of mated pairs stay the summer at Kankakee Sands and successfully raise colts. But never have we seen numbers like this, even though at Kankakee Sands we have thousands of acres of wet prairies and wetlands.  So, why here, why now?…

“Why” is such a great question, isn’t it? That’s science right there. It’s the first step in the scientific method that researchers use all the time: Find a question to investigate. And the Why’s are how we learn. Think of a two-year-old asking Why over and over and over again.

Science is constantly unfolding. The more data available, the better understanding we have about the world around us. Your own Wow moments can inform the scientific community. Termed Citizen Science or Community Science, people like you and me can submit our nature wow’s to crowdsourcing websites, so that researchers, biologists, and conservation practitioners can use the data to inform their findings and their decisions.

iNaturalist is a community science program with a global reach. It is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society with the aim of bringing scientists and the public together virtually to catalogue the biodiversity of the planet. https://www.inaturalist.org/. By simply sharing photos of the plants, animals, insects, and fungi that you have seen at a particular place via the iNaturalist website or mobile app, scientists can begin to better understand our ecosystems and why they function like they do. We know a lot about the natural world, but there is still so much more to learn and understand.

At Kankakee Sands, we utilize visitor’s iNaturalist sightings to help our understanding of the 8,000 acres here. If you’d like to learn how to use iNaturalist, Kankakee Sands Site Manager, Trevor Edmonson, will be leading an introduction to iNaturalist at Kankakee Sands on Saturday, April 29, from 1 to 3 pm, central time.The event is hosted by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Friends of the Sands. For more information reach out to Trevor Edmonson at trevor.edmonson@tnc.org Think this sounds kind of interesting, but not sure you are up to the tech challenge? Bring a friend and/or bring a tech savvy youngster, and together we will log all the amazing things we see that day. Watch our events calendar for more upcoming iNaturalist programs with Trevor in the months ahead. www.nature.org/indianavolunteer

If you find that you enjoy community science, there are many options for crowdsourcing nature apps on which you can contribute your nature-based experiences. By sharing your wows, you can help scientists answer the question of why, and in doing so, you will be helping to shape the future of our planet!  

This May, when many of our spring migratory birds are returning to or moving through Indiana, visit Kankakee Sands to enjoy the sandhill cranes and the other 250 bird species that have been documented at Kankakee Sands. You never know what amazing things you’ll see when visiting, but we have a mighty good idea of what you might say when you see them – Wow!  


The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,400-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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