Crane Management

April 11, 2019

MSU Extension hosted a webinar in March, 2019 to inform crop producers about wildlife species that can impact field crop production and options for control.  In this video, Tim Wilson, the District Supervisor/Wildlife Biologist at USDA APHIS Wildlife Services in Michigan, talks about sandhill crane biology, crop damage, and management strategies.

Video Transcript

 - [Tim] Thanks for letting me speak this afternoon. And I wanted to present a little more information about Sandhill cranes, a little bit about their biology, some of the options for mitigating the damage that they cause, the permits that would be involved with that. It's something that's, it's kind of a unique phenomenon just in the last 20 years, the rise in the Sandhill crane population in Michigan. And so I wanted to spend a few minutes just talking about the species themselves like the, Rich and Ron were saying, this is the time they're returning to Michigan. They often spend their winters in the Southern Gulf states, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana. They winter down there and then during the springtime right now, usually March, end of March, they're starting to return to Michigan. Just being out and about I've seen a number of small flocks returning. They're starting to land in the fields, just as Rich was saying a few minutes ago. So what they'll be doing now is they'll be setting up their territories, they'll begin to breed and then they'll start building their nests and then laying their eggs. Cranes are kinda unique in the respect that they'll often return to the same site that they were the previous year. They show a strong site fidelity so they'll keep returning to that same field or fields. And that's one of the things to remember in managing for these species is getting out there ahead of time, getting them off your fields, getting them off your properties, so there's less tendency for those birds to return again next year. They're a long live species so if you can get out there and get out in front of them now and try and get them off your properties, that'll reduce the chances are they'll keep returning year after year. They'll breed when they're four or five years old. Often times only a couple eggs. You may see some pairs with one chick, some pairs may have two chicks. Often they'll nest around field edges, around the edges of wetlands. There's often that pond or wetland component of their habitat that when they're selecting habitats that they're looking for. So the dilemma is that while the species may present viewing opportunities for nature lovers, birdwatchers, on the flip side of that, when they do build to populations there's always the tendency that they could create conflicts, in this situation, conflicts with agriculture. The cranes themselves, obviously they're considered migratory birds. So they're protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The population trend is nothing but positive. I don't have current bird counts for Michigan but it's probably approaching 50,000, if not more, birds in Michigan. And one of the unique things is, like Ron and Rich were saying, is they prefer these agriculture habitats and that's primarily in the south central, the lower tier of counties. But we do actually work with a fair number of producers up in the upper peninsula. Menominee County, Delta County, some of those areas where there is a fair amount of agriculture. Potato growers, for example, up in those counties. But, by and large, the most work that we do is with produce this year in the south central counties in Michigan. And as I was saying before, even though on one hand, they present unique viewing opportunities and it's kind of a wildlife success story, on the other hand when they do get in concentrations, whether it's in fall flocks or whether it's in the spring when they're returning to Michigan, they can cause a fair amount of damage. And like they both mentioned, and as Eric has mentioned, is they tend to go right down the rows of the planted corn. They're omnivores, meaning that they eat both seeds, they eat insects, they eat invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. So, in this case, when they're going down the rows of freshly planted corn, they're probing down into that soil, pulling up that plant sprout and then eating that seed kernel that's still on that tap root there. So, unfortunately, you've probably the situations where you can kind of track which rows they've been just by walking down the row and seeing those little seedlings up on the soil of the surface there. Once those plants get seven, eight, nine inches tall, it's past the point where they cause the damage. You may still see them in your fields once that corn gets up to a foot or so. But at that point maybe they're focused on the insects, other things in that field. Maybe it's some leftover residual grain from the previous year. But in terms of the damage to the crops, it's usually during that seedling phase, whether it's the corn, soybeans. We do get some wheat growers that mention similar damage to when they plant the wheat late summer, early fall. I mentioned the potato growers. We've had a number of potato growers mention that when they harvest the potato, the potatoes on the surface for that short period of time before it's actually picked up, the cranes will be in there spearing the potato. I'm not exactly sure what their intent is at that particular time. A potato would be a fairly large thing for a crane to eat but nonetheless, just the fact that it speared that potato makes that potato unmarketable and the producers not able to sell that potato then. So there's a loss in the yield. There's also the cost of replanting the crops. And often times, as Ron was saying earlier, it seems like the seed corn guys really get hit the hardest when these birds show up due to the nature of growing that particular, the seed corn itself, compared to the field corn. - [Male Voice] Tim, have you had any reports of the crane going after the seed before emergence or do they really require that seedling to be coming up out of the ground to identify where the seed is? - [Tim] It seems like in most the producers that I talk to it's after that seedling has emerged. Then, I don't know whether it's, I feel it's a sight thing at that point, where they can see that row, see those seedlings and it's kind of a progressive walk down that row there. I haven't had producers mention to me that they've noticed right after they've planted before that seedling emerges where the birds will be in there and pulling up that seed before it germinates. It seems like it's once the seed has sprouted where the damage occurs. This is just a couple of snapshots of what that damage looks like. You've probably seen it right down the row. It's almost like they just walk right down the row uprooting those seedlings, seeking that kernel of corn, leaving the seedling just to wither up on top of the surface there. So, as far as managing cranes, because they're protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act there is a mechanism within the Fish and Wildlife Service that allows for the management of these birds. The Fish and Wildlife Service, they govern the management of migratory birds whether it's cranes, gulls, Great Blue Herons, birds of prey including Red-Tail Hawks, owls, waterfowl. Or the state management picks up is game birds, turkeys, grouse, Canada geese are a unique species, in that ultimately they're managed at the federal level but the Fish and Wildlife Service has turned over management authority for geese to the Department of Natural Resources. So, like Ashley was saying, those that wish to seek permits to manage geese would contact the DNR, their local biologist. Just as a side bar, we do get involved with the permits for doing Canada goose nest destruction removal and also round up and relocation but those permits are confined to specific counties in Michigan. Mainly the metropolitan counties, Wayne, Oakland, Macomb counties. But in terms of geese that are causing damage to agriculture, that goes back to making a phone call to your local biologist to talk about permits for those. So, options for managing damage caused by the cranes. Basically, there's two pathways. The first is the non-lethal harassment and this was what Rich had mentioned that he had done. This is something where you're just going out harassing the birds, you're not physically harming them. Just to try and get them to leave the fields, instill in them a fear of humans, so that when they see either pick-up trucks or four-wheelers or anything that resembles humans, they're gonna leave the site. And especially this is the time of year to be doing that as they're returning to those fields. Get out there, get after them. It's something that's going to have to be done on a regular basis. Just going out there once or twice and seeing the birds fly away isn't gonna solve the problem. It's got to be a repeated exercise, getting out there, chasing these birds, so that they learn that, hey, every time we fly to this field, somebody's out here harassing us. We're just gonna avoid this field and go to somebody else's field. So it's something that just, it's a repeated thing. If the non-lethal harassment isn't providing the results that you're looking for, then we talk about lethal options. And these are where the depredation permits come in. This would allow for the shooting of a certain number of Sandhill cranes. And I know just in the last couple of years there's been talk of, we get questions asked to us, why don't they open a hunting season for these cranes? Well, we're a non-regulatory agency. We don't get into those debates, conversations. I know the Department of Natural Resources has had conversations recently about establishing a hunting season and I don't know where those conversations are at but I know it has been discussed. Certain states do allow for the hunting of Sandhill cranes. I think Texas is one of those. But we're not there yet. So at this point in time, our best management option in cases where the cranes are causing damage is the Fish and Wildlife Service depredation permits. So, in terms of non-lethal harassment, again, these are activities that you would undertake right now as the birds are reappearing. Get out there, chase them. You can chase them in vehicles, four-wheelers. Like Rich was mentioning earlier, he had his dog out in one of his fields. You can take a shotgun and shoot shells over their heads to scare them, get them to fly away. There's certain shell crackers. They're called pyrotechnics. There's several vendors online and if you Google pyrotechnics they can sell you these. They're specifically manufactured for harassing wildlife. There's several different varieties of them. They're very effective in scaring birds away from fields. So we encourage people to utilize pyrotechnics. Another variation of this is the propane cannons. Put those out in the fields and you can either program them to go off on a regular fashion or irregularly. We encourage people to set them up where they're going off in an irregular fashion so that birds aren't predicting when they're gonna go off. If you set it to go off every morning at 8:00 the birds will get used to that. But if you mix it up where it detonates in an unpredictable manner, it's gonna have a lot more benefit to scaring the birds from your fields. Lastly, there's the Avipel. The next speaker, Dan, he's gonna be talking about Avipel so I'm just going to mention it in passing. This is the taste repellent that's been discussed previously. And again, the key to this non-lethal harassment is to get out there as soon as the birds appear, harass them from the fields, chase them from the fields. No permits needed at this point. But it's just to make these birds more fearful of people out there. Avipel, I'll just mention this just briefly, but it's the powder, the repellent that you mix onto the seed prior to the planting that when the birds ingest it they get upset stomachs and at that point it's less desirable for them to keep going down that row of corn. There's two formulations. There's a liquid formulation. There's a dry formulation that you just mix up in the Hopper prior to planting. It's labeled for the field, seed and sweet corn. And Dan can provide more information on the cost but you're looking at somewhere, six to ten dollars an acre. This is something you do prior to putting in the ground. So, as far the depredation permits, again, this is something that's, we recommend it when the producer calls us first with complaints about the damage. Let's try this first. If this isn't producing the desired outcome, let's talk about the lethal control permits. The Fish and Wildlife Service, when they review an application for a depredation permit, they want to see a good faith effort made it trying to non-lethally reduce the damage. It's hard for them to justify if the producer has not done any other sort of non-lethal harassment for them to justify giving them a lethal kill permit. So we talked about the non-lethal options. Once a producer has tried that, we can look at a depredation permit. This would allow you to remove a specific number of cranes per year. And again, this is a wildlife management tool. It's not a tool or it's not a permit that enables a producer to put meat in their freezer. This is something that is meant to control damage from these birds. They can't sell the cranes, they can't consume the meat. They have to be disposed of and it's something that we go over with the producers at the time of application. It's a fairly straightforward process. When I first started working for Wildlife Services in 2001, these permits for cranes were not even on a table yet. So it's several years later that the Fish and Wildlife Service gave us the opportunity to take Sandhill cranes. So how the process works is the producer would call us for an application. We can send it to them, talk about the non-lethal options to try it first. They'd fill out the application, send us a copy, and then we've got to fill out a form. It's called the Form 37. Return it to them. They then take that along with their application materials, send it directly on to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service will review it and then send them the permit directly to them. It's good, basically, from April 1st through March 31st of the following year. And the nice thing about once you've got the first permit, is that following November, you'll get a letter, a renewal notice from the Fish and Wildlife Service. That if you want to renew it, you can do so at that time. So come April 1st of the following year, you'll already have your permit in hand for when you go planting. It's a fairly streamline process. It sounds like there's several steps to it, which there is, but it's a fairly easy application to fill out and the turn-around-time for these is usually about one to two weeks, two weeks at the maximum. Once they're in the system it makes it a lot easier to renew it for the following year. But we encourage people not to wait until the last minute. Like I said, 17, 18 years ago we didn't process any application for Sandhill cranes. Now we process upwards of probably between 70 and 80 permits for Sandhill cranes. So encourage landowners to renew them early in the spring. Right now's the perfect time so they have them when they get out in the fields and start planting. If a producer has a permit and he takes that limited number of birds that's spelled out on his permit, he can call us, request an amendment to allow for the take of more birds. One thing I do want to mention is these permits are really intended to take cranes during the time when they're causing damage. They're really not intended to shoot cranes after the crop is harvested. At that point they're not causing damage. It's really only that narrow window when the birds are causing damage, right when the crop sprouts, birds are in there. That's the opportune time to exercise these permits. After the crop is harvested, they may still be in there getting some spilled grain, but at that point, the damage is not occurring. So, it's really only, there's language on the permits that spells that out, that it's really only for when the birds are causing damage. So, I guess in summary, there are people out there that like to see these birds and they're kind of neat to see them in situations where they're not causing damage but when they get in congregations and flocks when there could be several hundred, at that point, when they're causing damage, they're not as welcome. So, the take home message is that to alleviate that damage it's often a combination of techniques both non-lethal and the lethal techniques. And then also getting out there right now. When the birds are showing up get out there, chase them, harass them. Get them fearful of people so that the damage is gonna be less when you're planting here in the next month or two. There's my contact information. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions. Email, phone. I'd be glad to try and help you as best I can. And if you have any questions about the depredation process, I'll be glad to help you through that as well. So thank you for your time and I'll look forward to helping you if I can.