Rusty Feathers


Sandhill Cranes with their chick were strolling through low vegetation in a farmer’s field on Highway Z as I drove home from a trip to the Marsh.  The adults were probing the soil with their beaks and sharing seeds and insects with their eager chick.  The chick actually walked underneath its parent to be as close as possible for dinner.

What is wrong with this picture?  Adult Sandhill Cranes have gray feathers.  In the area surrounding the Horicon Marsh there is a lot of iron in the soil.  When a crane brings its beak out of iron-rich soil and preens its feathers, it leaves a rusty residue on its feathers making them appear brown.

Sandhill Cranes have a unique rolling call that can travel for miles.  Their trachea, or windpipe, is an amazing 27 inches long!  It takes a convoluted journey through the front of the chest on its way to the lungs.  Part of this area of the chest is not solid bone but 2 frail plates.[1] Our trachea, on the other hand, is a short 4 inches long. It starts at the top of our neck (below the larynx or voice box) and makes a straight shot to our lungs (the bronchi).  If you would like to read more about this fascinating subject, check out the article “The Convolution of the Trachea in the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes” by Thomas S. Roberts written in 1880!

I snapped a few pictures of the cranes and continued on to Dike Road.  A Killdeer moved a few yards from where it had been resting when it heard the crunch of the gravel under my car tires.  I suspect she was sitting on a nest.  I will come back soon to look closer.

[1] Thomas S. Roberts, “The Convolution of the Trachea in the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes,” The American Naturalist 14 (February 1880):  108-114, Published by The University of Chicago Press for the American Society of Naturalists, accessed September 2, 2016,


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