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Sandhill cranes: Defining spring in Chicago outdoors

As Margo Sliwa walked home from the Northwest Side Irish Parade, she “saw and heard the cranes flying overhead . . . spring has sprung!!!!!’’

On March 13, Criostai Howell posted on my Facebook, “Tons of sandhill cranes flying over the south end today. That’s my official sign. Spring is here.”

Sandhill cranes and their distinctive krooing, as John Vukmirovich calls it, have become the predominant natural sign of spring’s arrival around Chicago. This year, the big swing started on March 11 and 12.

Even one of Illinois” preeminent birders, Doug Stotz, the Field Museum’s senior conservation ecologist, agrees on the meaning of sandhills.

“They certainly are for me,” he emailed Sunday. “I was away last week, and heard about the warm-up that was coming and thought–cranes will be migrating and they certainly were. Today, we had close to 1,000 over our house.

“The thing that makes them such a good symbol of spring is that they move on south winds, so you get the good migration days on those days in March that `feel like spring.’ They can start moving by late February when we have a mild February, but even in those years the main movement is in March. The fact that their numbers in the upper Midwest have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades has just made that migratory movement even more prominent.

“Their weakness as a symbol of spring is they basically fly over and don’t stop here; also they pretty much go around the city, so residents of the city don’t get to see the migration.”

Vukmirovich might disagree slightly. For years, he chronicled the passage of sandhills over his old home turf in the 10th Ward on Chicago’s Southeast Side.This year, he began scanning the skies on March 7, but the big arrival did not come until a week later. That day included this moment as he left the Nike site.

“Two very large skeins came over the very north end of Wolf Lake, only about 300 feet up, and scared the bejesus out of me,” he emailed. “I had been sitting on a log under the big red sign for the Wolf Lake Overlook, changing my socks when–wham!— the time-space continuum opened up and they flew out of it! Each skein had about 75-100 cranes in it, and they merged and swirled overhead, making a hell of a racket.”

For Dan Spalla in Glen Ellyn, sandhills are linked to other spring activities.

“The sandhill cranes are on the move.YAHOO,’’ he emailed last week. “Never seen them so low. This means: New fishing line and soon new licenses. And, of course, the dreaded yard work.’’

Jim Hantak ties sandhills to other natural spring signs.

“I saw a small sedge of sandhill cranes (about 15) fly over Hillside this morning about 10:30 a.m.’’ he emailed on March 12. “I also heard the call of a killdeer in the park across my house, also in Hillside. Still waiting for my first red-winged blackbird to show up to my feeders.’’

“One final sign of early spring for me is chipmunks starting to get really active in the forest preserves,’’ Stotz said.

The other big one for me, often close to the sandhill migration, is shore fishermen catching coho up and down the Chicago lakefront.

There’s interlocking circles in Chicago outdoors.

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