Song of the Sandhills

The Wilder Side of Oakland County


“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wings they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun in the marsh.“ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo Leopold would smile if he lived today and traveled to the wilder sides of Oakland County. Sandhill cranes have returned to the protected wetlands of Rose Oaks County Park for the 2016 breeding season and their arrival has not been subtle. Shortly after dawn late last week I too was greeted by their distinctive resonating rolling cries that Leopold so eloquently described. It is a sound like none other; a primordial call of wildness that all who love or protect wildness and wildlands cherish. Their duet “unison calls” is a spectacular synchronize song by a mated pair in their established habitat.


April in Michigan is time for their courtship dance, a naturally shared behavior that includes wing-flapping, bowing and jumping, sometimes stick tossing, and of course song! With nesting season underway the cranes seek out areas further back from trails, hidden within more secluded wetlands away from humans and terrestrial predators. It is there they create nesting mounds constructed of surrounding vegetation. After the female lays her two eggs the pair takes turns with incubation. One incubates while the other is out feeding. Sandhill cranes are omnivores, feeding on grains, seeds and the occasional meadow vole. As the earth warms, snakes, frogs and large insects join the menu. If crows, raccoons, or even a coyote gets too close, the male will vigorously defend the nest.


These majestic crimson-capped birds stand four feet tall and have six foot wings spans yet they can hide in plain sight when motionless and silent among the emergent vegetation on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Text and photos by Nature Education Writer Jonathan Schechter.

Visit for details and maps on all 13 Oakland Parks and winter outdoor recreation opportunities. Originally published on March 26, 2014, updated on March 1, 2016.

32 thoughts on “Song of the Sandhills

  1. […] Sandhill Cranes appearing before final snow melt are a good signal that spring is on the way. These stately four-foot tall birds with red caps fly home to Oakland County to stake out their breeding territories and strut about icy shorelines as they search for seeds, meadow voles and mice. Addison Oaks County Park, Kensington Metropark, Rose Oaks County Park and Stony Creek Metropark are four of our local wildlands that these beauties call home. Other Sandhills saunter about the fields of Cook’s Farm Diary in Brandon Township, and the meadows of Seven Lakes State Park near Holly. […]

  2. […] Sandhill cranes interrupted my visitation with the pitcher plants. Their rattling and resonating call – music to my ears – drew my attention and the attention of a pair of Canada Geese. Two crimson capped sandhills proclaimed their territory with song and motion at the edge of a small peninsula, the perfect music to bring to mind one of my favorite quotes of Charles Darwin, “Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life.” A walk on the Wilder Side of Oakland County in the great Huron Swamp confirms the words of Darwin. […]

  3. […] Sandhill Cranes have adapted well to life in our county and loiter here as long as they can easily find food. The early days of November have many of these red-capped beauties scrounging fields for seeds, tubers, insects and even mice. Others stalk around decoratively placed corn stalks in county parks and peck at the nutritious road side snack. […]

  4. […] Sandhill Cranes are dancing and singing their courtship songs all across Oakland County. Their leaping, wing-flapping dance moves are one of the finest and perhaps most astonishing shows of nature for those that are lucky enough to witness their exuberance for life. The spectacular performance takes one’s breath away. An early morning solo hike near the entrance of Rose Oaks County Park presented me with an opportunity to watch that ritual from a crouched position among dry cattails with Red-Winged Blackbirds as my companions. […]

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