Pull up a bench at Lake County’s Grand Kankakee Marsh at dusk and wait. 

Soon you’ll hear (then see) the flocks of sandhill cranes slip overhead.  Watch the birds closely, remembering people come from all over Lake and Jasper County to see these cranes.  You’ll draw a very quick conclusion: sandhill cranes aren’t graceful. Or beautiful.  In fact, they’re kindahomely. 

Their far-from-musical voices call out a tuneless combo of bleating and honking. Kah-HOon, kah-HOon. Mottled gray and brown feathers cover pear-shaped bodies, topped with necks like garden hoses and a red-tufted head. When feeding, sandhill cranes always seem on the verge of toppling in the water face-first.  

Their flying formations lack the synchronization of mallards, the fever of teals or the stateliness of the whooping cranes.  Even the sandhill’s most impressive feature, its five-to-seven-foot wingspan, poorly matches its lightbulb frame. 

Knobby knees, twiggy legs, bulbous butt, gangly wings, red-tufted head, feathers the color of attic dust...THAT’S the sandhill crane.   

Even the MOST generous nature literature would hesitate to call the sandhill crane graceful or elegant, yet the Grand Kankakee Marsh gets thousands of visitors a year who ooh and aah at the crane flocks settling into every streamlet, ditch or puddle in the park. 

“Come through here in spring,” said Grand Kankakee Marsh Property Manager Chris Orange, “and you’ll find sandhills anywhere you find water.”

But why would anyone WANT to observe the sandhills?  To really answer that, you’d have to see them in person, but I can try to summarize: Because sandhills have fun. 

Watch their flight. Technically, they’re soaring birds, but soaring isn’t the right word.  They surf the air, flopping and twisting their bodies on invisible drafts. It’s impossible to watch sandhill cranes at the marsh and believe they’re flying for any reason but simple enjoyment. They’ll chase a good thermal draft in every direction, side to side, up and down, diagonally, vortexing, the flock jerking in mid-air to snatch the invisible waves. It’s like watching a five-year-old with a pilot’s license. 100% fun with sugar added.

And sandhill cranes have attitude, too.  Since 1979, the Grand Kankakee Marsh has
been the only daily-draw, public-access waterfowl hunting ground in Lake County.Duck hunters come from all over the state to work the marsh’s mallards, woodies, teals, shovelers and other waterfowl. But Indiana duck hunters can’t touch sandhill cranes.  I swear these cocky birds know it.  

At dusk they’ll Kah-HOon proudly and buzz the tops of the oaks and maples, low enough so you can make out individual belly feathers.  Follow a flock until they settle and stand 20-30 yards away from a feeding sandhill. It will stare right back at you, ticking its head side to side curiously between nibbles.

Ultimately, it will decide you’re less interesting than the smorgasbord of insects, reptiles and amphibians in the marsh water.  Get a little closer. That crane will unfurl like an exploding umbrella, shooting from the water and flapping a comfortable distance away to glare at you. It’s a sight to see. 

Maybe I’m wrong about the sandhills.  I could be projecting, that old psychological standby. I humbly admit I am no avian expert.  You’ll have to come out to the Grand Kankakee Marsh yourself. Just one piece of advice, imparted by expert walleye fisherman, wildlife encyclopedia and long-time Grand Kankakee Marsh statesman Dick “Flip” Phelps:  “Just don’t stand under ‘em when they’re flying.” 

You see, if sandhills see you there, they’ll TRY to crap on you.  Is it genetics?  Territorial marking? Coincidence? Believe what you want. 

I think they find it funny. Kah-HOon!