Sanford residents and visitors alike have experienced a rare treat for the past few weeks, a visiting pair of adult sandhill cranes. They have been frequenting several large cleared areas in Tramway, centered around the Bojangles on Tramway Road. Numerous accounts of sightings and encounters with the pair have appeared on social media, with varying degrees of accuracy regarding the true nature of these spectacular animals.
Sandhill cranes are very large birds, with mature adults reaching a height of four feet or more, so they're pretty hard to miss, particularly when they stand on the parking lot curb or meander across the asphalt and join the restaurant patrons in the drive thru lane.
They are larger than the superficially similar great blue herons which are a very common and frequently seen wading bird native to our area. To the casual observer, the most obvious difference between the two is the bright red forehead of the sandhill crane.
Various birding websites and publications report a few sightings of sandhill cranes in North Carolina each year, most of which are observed migrating across the extreme southwestern counties of North Carolina on their way to breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest and Canada during the early spring.
It is highly unusual, if not downright rare, for a pair of these magnificent creatures to appear in the veritable heart of North Carolina, much less hang around for weeks as this pair has.
There has been considerable speculation online among the area population generally, as well as knowledgeable birders, regarding the origins of Sanford's rare avian visitors and their possible fate.
The nearest year-round resident population of sandhill cranes is in Florida. While most of North America's sandhill cranes migrate far to the north each spring to breed, the Florida sandhill cranes are a non-migratory resident population. Due to habitat loss in their historical Florida range, this population has been given threatened status and offered special protections under Florida law. Aside from habitat loss and degradation, one of the greatest threats to these birds comes from well-meaning humans.
These large, attractive birds readily accept offerings of food from humans, and can become quite tame in the face of frequent feedings. Although such interaction might appear to be positive for all parties, it actually represents a significant danger to the birds by attracting them to areas with high automobile traffic and significant numbers of overhead utility lines, two of the most common causes of death for these amazing birds.
The threat of unintended harm as a result of feeding has resulted in a Florida law specifically banning the feeding of Florida sandhill cranes. Coincidentally, the home range of the Florida sandhill crane population encompasses the city of Sanford, located in Seminole County, Florida, and the website of their local newspaper features several photos of their local sandhill cranes.
Which raises the possibility that maybe our visitors are simply ambassadors from a sister city in the Sunshine State..., or maybe not.
While we may never know the full story behind these remarkable birds and their odyssey before they arrived in our fair town, perhaps we can learn from the experiences of residents in another Sanford further south, and honor the wildness of these wonderful creatures by admiring them from afar.
If we allow them to forage naturally, they can sustain themselves on the bounty of food available to them in the nearby fields and lawns and waterways, and we can avoid the potentially dire unintended consequences of our well-intentioned efforts to feed them.
And who knows?
Maybe they'll decide to stick around and raise a family;
or at the very least, come back to see us again next year.