It’s that bittersweet season when we welcome incoming migrants and say goodbye to many of our winter residents. None of our “snowbirds” are missed more than the Sandhill Cranes. Over 20,000 spent this winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a state-owned refuge in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
Over this very dry winter, the playa lake where the cranes roost gradually disappeared. Roosting in water offers some protection from nocturnal predators such as Coyotes, Bobcats, and even domestic dogs and cats. The shrinking lake left the cranes more vulnerable, and with the departure of most of the flock the laggards can no longer count on safety in numbers for protection from Golden and Bald Eagles in the daytime.
All around the lake are piles of gray feathers. You’d have to perform a forensic examination of each pile to determine cause of death, but one accessible cluster included wing feathers that looked as though they had been snipped off with pruning shears. The bill of an eagle doesn’t have edges sharp enough for that, but a Coyote’s shearing carnassial teeth do.
In the pile were feathers stained brown from the “body painting” they do during the nesting season. Family bonds in cranes are strong. I mourned for the loss to this bird’s mate and offspring, but somewhere there’s a Coyote and probably some smaller scavengers who were celebrating with full bellies.