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In the fall, sandhill cranes gather in their northern summer grounds and start southward. Many traditionally make a rest stop in northern Indiana, and then in early December as weather worsens they start the trek on to their winter homes in Georgia and Florida.
Some of the birds make a brief stop coming or going in the Ohio River bottoms or in central Kentucky.
One of the first stops for the sandhills, which have a 7-foot wingspan, is in and around the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Indiana. They usually spend several weeks there gleaning the surrounding farm fields before heading on south. Anywhere from 10,000-30,000 of the big birds frequent Jasper-Pulaski.
Hundreds and maybe thousands of people also flock to JPL to view and listen to the birds. Viewing stands have been constructed over the years to watch the fall gathering.
For some reason, this year the cranes are more widespread and seem to be heading south earlier. The weather shouldn’t have been a factor. It has been relatively mild so far.
Do the birds know something is different? Highly unlikely. However, this year Kentucky will have its first sandhill crane hunting season. While the big birds are currently hunted in 13 others states, three Canadian provinces, and Mexico, Kentucky is the first state east of the Mississippi River to offer a season.
Sandhills have been hunted in modern times for more than 50 years, and their numbers continue to grow. The North American population is estimated at about 700,000 birds and the Eastern population, which includes Indiana and Kentucky, is believed to be somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 birds.
Kentucky’s peak number of sandhills is estimated to approach 20,000 birds, primarily in the Barren River Lake area.
The Kentucky hunting season for sandhill cranes will begin Dec. 17 and continue through Jan. 15 or until hunters take 400 cranes, whichever comes first. It is possible many of the birds normally passing through Kentucky will have completed their crossing by mid-December. Smart birds? Probably just some unusual circumstances pushing some birds to migrate earlier.
Kentucky hunters were required to apply for the hunt; applications closed Wednesday.
Successful applicants must complete and pass an online identification exam before receiving a permit. Each permitted hunter may take up to two sandhill cranes. Hunters must use the department’s Telecheck system to register each crane on the day the bird is taken.
Hunters will also be required to monitor the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website daily for notices of season closure and notifications of the presence of whooping cranes in Kentucky. For additional information, visit the department’s website, or call the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Information Center at (800) 858-1549 during normal weekday working hours.
The Kentucky hunt is part of a three-year trial, and according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has been crafted to have no impact on the Eastern population, have as small an impact on nature watching as possible, protect the experimental eastern population of whooping cranes, and provide hunting opportunities for those who want to hunt cranes.
The big birds reportedly are good eating, and no, they don’t taste like chicken. Some say they taste more like beef. Numerous recipes can be found on the Internet.
Sandhills adapt. They are very shy when they migrate. A few years ago a friend called me to see a large flock in the Ohio River bottoms. I couldn’t get close enough to get a decent photo. However, where I stay in Florida during the coldest winter months, the cranes become a nuisance. You don’t dare feed them, or you can’t get rid of them.
Whether you want to hunt them, watch them or photograph them, they are a beautiful bird to enjoy.
Contact outdoors writer Phil Junker by e-mail at email@example.com or check out his blog at outdoorscribe.blogspot.com.