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Sandhill Cranes Will Soon Be Migrating over Chicago

With five-foot wingspans, these birds cut impressive figures across the sky—even more so when they’re in flocks several hundred strong. Catch them in March on their annual migration from Indiana to Wisconsin.

Photo: Courtesy of Forest Preserves of Cook County

The usual sounds of Chicago’s hustle and bustle will soon be punctuated by the distinct, warbling call of sandhill cranes soaring overhead. 

The large, red-crested birds are pros at gliding along warm air thermals that start to circulate once temperatures rise and the snow melts. Chicagoans can see flocks several hundred strong as they embark on their annual migration from Indiana to Wisconsin and beyond to breed. 

Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Cook County Forest Preserve who has observed the migration since the early ’80s, said some of the birds may even breed here in Cook County; eight pairs did last year. The tall, grey adults produce almost comically mismatched chicks covered in golden down and strutting on long, spindly legs—imagine an awkwardly tall duckling. 

The flocks’ genetic memories will keep them flying over the Chicagoland area for generations to come. Look for them soon, just one more reason to enjoy the city’s approaching thaw. 

WHEN? Over your lunch break. Prime fly time is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Why then? That’s when the atmosphere is warmest. Columns of (relatively) balmy air help the cranes rise to cruising altitude, where they glide with the currents.

WHERE? Head south for the best view: Wolf Lake in Hegewisch, Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs, and Sagawau Canyon Nature Preserve in Lemont are all along the traditional migration route.

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