It's a Great Day to Bird

Crane Death

WARNING:  This story includes graphic photos of a dead Sandhill Crane.  If you do not want to see the photos, then you might want to stop reading now.

We  have been graced with Sandhill Cranes on our property since we moved into our home in 2008.  This has included both nesting and non-nesting pairs.  In August 2008, a male crane on our property was captured by Dr. Gary Ivey with the International Crane Foundation.  The crane was fitted with both a satellite and radio transmitter as part of a project by Kachemak Crane Watch to determine the migration route of the Sandhill Cranes that nest in the Homer area.  This male was paired with a female crane who had a colt (crane chick) that year.  We got the pleasure of watching the pair raise their colt, including teaching it to fly.  This crane pair returned to our property through 2013.  Unfortunately we haven’t seen the tagged crane since.

That, however, has not stopped other cranes from claiming the area and nesting nearby, and this year, we had the pleasure of having a crane nest on our property.  We had a general idea of where the nest was located, but didn’t want to actively search for the nest for fear that eagles, ravens, magpies, or neighbor dogs might find and destroy the eggs, and injure or kill the cranes.

The pair first appeared on our property on 17 April 2016 – the earliest recorded arrival for our property.   The pair liked to come to the garden area and hang out together.  We figured something was up when only one crane of the pair began showing up on 3 May 2016, signalling that one of the cranes was on the nest.

On 9 June 2016, Jack was looking out the window and noticed a Bald Eagle drop to the ground in the general location of our nesting crane pair.  We immediately ran outside to check on the crane and the nest.  Much to our dismay we found the Bald Eagle feeding on a dead Sandhill Crane.  We surmised the crane had been dead for several hours as it was missing most of its feathers and breast meat.  The beak was essentially gone – or at least the outer layer – and the head had been stripped of feathers.  We suspect the killed crane was the male, but don’t know for sure.

We did not want to check on the nest, afraid the surviving crane may still be on the nest.  So the next day, with no eagles around, we went to check on the crane nest.  What we found were a whole lot of feathers and a broken egg shell, its contents gone.  We lost our crane nest and chick(s) for the year.

This nest was the closest a crane pair had nested to our home to date.  We were so looking forward to having possibly one or two little colts (crane chicks) to watch grow and learn to fly.  Unfortunately a Bald Eagle had other plans – dinner.

Many people will say such is life.  The death of this crane by an eagle is just nature taking its course.  While that may be true, what isn’t “natural” is people feeding Bald Eagles.  People who feed Bald Eagles will want to know how feeding an eagle is any different than people feeding cranes.  But it is different.  Bald Eagles are top predators and will go prey on more than fish, including Sandhill Cranes.  After the death of our crane, I learned another crane pair within a mile or two of our house was being harassed by not just one Bald Eagle, but five.   Please do not feed or encourage the feeding of Bald Eagles.  To do so, just increases the population of Bald Eagles in the area, resulting in increased pressure on its food prey (e.g., ducks, cranes, and yes – people’s pets); and when food is not sufficient, results in the starvation of the bird.


One of our cranes


The cranes did not like their reflection in our windows so they would attack the window (footprint), thinking they were driving away another crane invading its territory.


Dead Crane – when we found it many of its feathers were missing.


Up close view of the crane’s head. The outer layer of its beak was missing.


Crane feathers – general area of nest


Crane feathers – up close


Depredated Crane Egg – the only egg shell or egg I saw amongst the feathers.  Another could have been removed and eaten elsewhere or there was only one egg to begin with. 

We fear despite the pair being on a nest, the egg(s) was addled.  Crane incubation is generally 30 days.  Our cranes began nesting on May 3rd.  The adult and the eggs were depredated on June 9th – which is more than 30 days from the date we believe incubation began.  While it is sad to lose eggs and chicks, the greater impact to the Sandhill Crane population is the loss of a breeding adult.

We hope next year another crane pair will come and build a nest on our property or the widowed crane will find a new mate and return.  Two days after the attack, a pair did come and try chasing off the widowed crane.  Stay Tuned……..

It’s A Great Day to Bird



1 Comment

  1. Nina Faust

    Thanks for this account. An elevated eagle population is hard on the prey base throughout the area. Hopefully, the eagles will disperse to other areas now that there are no more murre carcasses on beaches. But more importantly, hopefully people will understand more the problems that feeding eagles in neighborhoods can create. It also can bring bears to neighborhoods, a liability for those who feed eagles, since negligently feeding bears is illegal. I hope you get another nesting pair of cranes.

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