by Whit Gibbons

January 9, 2011

"The state of Kentucky is considering a change in its game regulations that will allow hunting of sandhill cranes." My first reaction upon reading that statement was "It's a game bird? Can you even eat a sandhill crane?" The answer to that second question is "of course." At various times in various places, people have probably eaten every kind of animal they have been able to kill. Sandhill cranes certainly would not be the exception to the rule.

Indeed, the state wildlife agency in Kansas, one of the states where sandhill cranes are already hunted as a game species, says that "crane meat is considered excellent table fare, probably the best of all migratory game birds." A friend even gave me a recipe for the big birds--a concoction of soy sauce, brown sugar, minced garlic and cayenne pepper. The only edible part of the sandhill crane is the breast, but the recipe calls it the "flying rib eye of the sky." OK, so one part of this magnificent migratory bird that is larger than a great blue heron is edible.
But does being good to eat in itself qualify a species for legal hunting? I imagine there were many fine recipes for the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

Like many other North American birds, sandhill crane populations dipped drastically when European settlers came to the New World. The climb back since the mid-1900s has been steady, and current estimates set the number of birds at more than a half million. The U.S. Geological Survey states that sandhill cranes are now "the most abundant of the world's cranes." To learn what a sandhill crane looks and sounds like, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website

Some land managers maintain that keeping the number of cranes trimmed down is important because "if concentrations become too high the risk of disease increases." This paradigm may be reasonable for some game species in some situations, but these migratory species did quite well in enormous numbers before people arrived on the scene to "take care of them." The International Crane Foundation states that "limited data . . . suggest that crane populations do stop growing without the need for hunting. . . . [But] ICF data [also] show that the eastern population of sandhill cranes is large enough for a sustainable harvest to occur."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state game agencies consider sandhill cranes to have reached such levels of abundance that removal of individual birds by hunters will not impair populations. This is considered to be especially true for the midcontinental migratory routes from Canada to the southern United States and Mexico. State and federal wildlife officials have effective procedures for monitoring populations of game animals and for limiting hunting in ways that ensure sustainable levels are maintained. No doubt they will apply those practices to sandhill cranes, and I am not concerned about survival of the species simply because it is designated a game bird.

I would not want to shoot a sandhill crane any more than I would want to kill a mockingbird or cedar waxwing. But I am well aware of the positive role hunters play in environmental conservation, and antihunting critics should remember that states acquire major funding from hunting licenses each year. Those proceeds, which are further supplemented by federal taxes paid by hunters, are used to maintain wildlife habitats that benefit nongame species as well as game animals.

I am not opposed to hunting per se, but I do question whether adding sandhill cranes to the list of game birds in Kentucky is necessary, particularly when you realize that whooping cranes sometimes fly in the flocks with them. The penalty for killing a whooping crane can be thousands of dollars, plus jail time. So if you think it is OK to shoot into a flock of high-flying, long-legged wading birds with little edible meat on their body, be sure not to hit the white ones with black wing tips. That could cost you.

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