Sandhill cranes proving to be a headache
It is nothing new for Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Tricia Plautz to get a depredation call from an irate landowner, and throughout the last three years she has been pursuing a new culprit.
Like Canada geese, sandhill cranes like to feed on the field bounty provided by farming operations. Plautz has noticed corn and oats seem to be two of the crane's favorite crops, but other grain crops are also targeted. They go after corn plants in the spring, tearing the young plants up by the roots to reach the seed, and grain swaths in late summer. Cranes will also eat worms, grubs and grasshoppers. Flocks of cranes have been seen feeding in eastern Otter Tail, Wadena and Todd Counties.
"They are abundant here and they are detrimental to the crops," Plautz said.
Sandhill cranes are tall birds that weigh between 8 and 10 pounds, and can have a wingspan of up to 7 feet. They are hunted in northwestern Minnesota, the Dakotas and in Canada. Prepared correctly, they are considered a worthy wild game dish. Crane hunters commonly refer to them as "ribeye in the sky."
The big, gray birds are sociable in their feeding habits, and flocks of 50-100 cranes have been seen feeding in a single field.
Because sandhill cranes are federally protected for all but a short time during their migration in the fall, there is a limit to what Plautz can do. She routinely turns a depredation problem over to the DNR office in Fergus Falls.
Fergus Falls DNR Wildlife Manager Don Schultz recommends a seed treatment for corn to farmers with crane problems. A new liquid product called "Avipel" applied to the seed has been proven to work well in repelling the feeding cranes. The product is not lethal to cranes, but it coats the seed with a taste the birds do not like.
Schultz knows the birds commonly seen in the Wadena area come from a flock that roost at a wildlife area in Woodside Township of Otter Tail County. The DNR has flown helicopters to survey the sandhill cranes hunted in northwestern Minnesota, but no one knows what the local sandhill population is. Plautz, who works in the Henning area, believes the local flock, which is a sub-species of the cranes that are hunted in northwestern Minnesota, has grown to a couple thousand birds.
Schultz pointed out that cranes are not a problem where farmers combine standing grain, but he admitted they can be very hard on fields where the grain has been cut into swaths.
"We've had reports of close to 100 in a field," Schultz said.
Greg Henderson, a wildlife technician with the Park Rapids DNR office, recalled a depredation complaint made a few years ago in Wadena County where cranes had gone into an alfalfa field. An investigation found that the alfalfa field had cut worms. The worms were cutting the plants and the cranes were flipping the loose sod over to feed on the worms and grubs under the soil. Henderson has seen similar depredation problems where deer, raccoons and turkeys.
Both Plautz and Schultz believe a local hunting season for sandhill cranes could be coming. Schultz sees a hunting season as a way of relieving the situation for landowners bothered by cranes, but not a way to totally eliminate it. It's just one more battle farmers are waging with wildlife.
"It's not a fun situation for farmers," Plautz said.