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Sandhill cranes worth extra hunting effort

Dec. 15, 2013 at 6:15 a.m.

Sandhill cranes are tough to hunt, but the reward is an excellent meal.

The piercing shrill of 1,500 birds sounded off as the truck lights shined on their shallow roost. A dozen lifted up and lumbered east, another 10 flew southeast, and the others continued to make lots of noise.

Close call.

Had all the birds been blown from the roost, our hunt would have been over before it started. So we gingerly dismissed the lights, crept quietly a quarter-mile down the road, slid in a dry canal and waited.

The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is one of 15 species in the world and one of two crane species native to North America, the other being the protected whooping crane that winters in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Mature sandhills have gray feathers, while young birds are gray with some browns in their plumage. Adults are identified by a crimson red forehead and white cheek. Both adults and juveniles have long, pointed black bills.

Often confused with the great blue heron and other large wading birds with pointed bills and long legs, the sandhill crane stands 4 to 5 feet high with a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. Large males weigh 11-12 pounds while females average 9 pounds each.

Sandhills are omnivores, feeding on a wide variety of plants and animals. Though they are similar to herons and often hang out in the same habitat, the crane's main diet is not fish.

Cranes use their bills to dig for snails, worms, mice, crawfish, snakes and insects; they also consume vegetation like roots, rice, corn, milo, wheat, acorns and fruits. They can be a farmer's best friend by depleting weed seed, waste grain and pesky insects.

Sandhill cranes are superb tablefare. Hunters have termed them, "ribeyes in the sky" for their fondness to red meat.

Hunting tactics differ, depending which zone you choose to chase cranes. The most consistent sandhill crane hunting occurs in Texas in Zones A and B, which encompass the Panhandle and West Texas. Biologists estimate close to half a million birds inhabit Texas, 80 percent of which reside in Zones A and B. With those numbers, obviously, more cranes are harvested around Amarillo, Dumas, Lubbock and Abilene than the Zone C coastal region.

Coastal cranes are not as plentiful, with some estimates near 100,000 birds; however, find a field with 500-1,000 long black legs, and the next morning could prove prosperous.

Cranes alienate themselves in fallow and plowed fields; that's not to say they will not occasionally mingle with a large flock of snow geese in a rice field full of waste grain.

Since coastal cranes are decoy-shy in late December and early January, a shift in tactics is a must. If possible, find a deep ditch or hedge row with thick cover and space hunters accordingly. Try to get in the flight path the cranes flew the day before, then set up your decoys 100 yards behind your hiding spot. Guide Bill Sherrill likes to use two to four dozen Sillosocks. He places them 10 yards apart, scattered throughout the field.

"I have never seen this many cranes on the prairie," said Sherrill. "We have at least double what we normally have, and we normally have a lot."

Cranes can see from afar and begin to lock up and glide toward the decoys beyond 150 yards. If hunters are hidden between the flying cranes and the decoys, shots ranging from 20-50 yards can be had before the sandhills figure out the fakes and gain altitude.

Hunters are reminded they must obtain a sandhill crane permit to hunt the big birds. The permit is free, but you can only get one at a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department office or by calling the main office in Austin.

The season runs Dec. 21 to Jan. 26, 2014.

Bink Grimes is a freelance writer, photographer, author and licensed hunting and fishing guide (binkgrimes@sbcglobal.net).

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