Like a big wingshot bird, the proposal by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission to open season on sandhill cranes keeps flopping around in my head. People who object to hunting sandhill cranes do so for a number of reasons. However, we are generally characterized by advocates of hunting as being uninformed, leading with our hearts rather than our heads. Perhaps they’re right.

Sandhill cranes dropping into a Tennessee field. Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

I will confess to having trouble getting my head around the reasoning behind the Tennessee crane hunting proposal. Plant 750 acres of feed crops for waterfowl. Watch sandhill cranes join the ducks and geese in exploiting the superabundant food. Start a festival for people who enjoy observing the stately birds. Celebrate a festival for 17 years as the wintering crane population swells to 48,000, and watch as a portion of the flock ceases to migrate, sticking around to feed on early spring plantings of winter wheat. Cancel the festival, then shuffle its dates around, back off the food crops to 450 acres, and propose a hunting season on cranes. All the while, grant crop depredation permits, giving farmers permission to shoot cranes that stay around late enough to eat their germinating winter wheat. I confess I’m left scratching my head. I have an incomplete understanding of the wildlife management principles illustrated here. From my uninformed perspective, it seems ill-advised to offer a migratory bird population so much artificial food that it ceases to migrate as it’s been doing since the Pleistocene. Is shooting about 2% of the population really the best answer?

When shooting starts on private land around the Hiwassee refuge, Tennessee ornithologists predict that cranes, along with ducks and geese, will make for the refuge. Cranes may be too dumb to divine that the corn managers planted was intended only for ducks and geese, but they are smart enough to avoid places where they’re being fired on. I’ve seen it suggested that this will actually benefit birders, providing better viewing on the refuge than they’d have were the cranes dispersed on private land. Well, here’s something to think about. Concentrating a large population of cranes in a smaller area can result in overcrowding and disease. Birders know that. They want what’s best for the birds, not for themselves. I can’t imagine any birdwatcher I know saying, “Oh good! They’re shooting cranes right outside the refuge! More cranes for ME!!”

What is needed here, it seems, is not more crowding but a natural dispersal of the population, encouraging them to move on south. Now, being a birdwatcher, I admit to being ignorant of the fine points of wildlife management, but what if Tennessee were to taper off the feeding program? Maybe the cranes would keep heading south when the food ran out. Silly, I know, but it’s just crazy enough–it might work. The converse certainly worked.

Tennessee is the first state in the Eastern Flyway to propose a hunting season on sandhill cranes. Kentucky announced its crane hunting season on December 6, 2010. I heard it on the radio as I was writing this post, stopping in mid-tap to stare at the speakers. And oddly, Kentucky isn’t accepting public comment. Have they observed the outcry over Tennessee’s proposal? Memo to Kentucky: Announcing that you’re not accepting public comment doesn’t stop people from calling and writing their legislators.

Oh, and birdwatchers might like to know that Wisconsin’s planning a sandhill crane hunting season, too. Wisconsin: home of the privately funded International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, where the big white whooping crane was snatched back from extinction. Imagine how Wisconsin’s thousands of self-described “craniacs” are going to feel about that. But we mustn’t lead with our hearts. We must accept the wisdom, the necessity of shooting sandhill cranes.

A sandhill crane falls near Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.    Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

The Eastern Flyway sandhill crane population has recovered from near extinction in the last 70 years—in our lifetime–and state game managers have taken notice. Their reasoning appears pretty simple: There are enough cranes around now to shoot some. My reasoning is simple too. Does that mean they must be shot? Is giving a small set of hunters one more bird species to aim at ultimately going to be worth the ill will and polarization of camps between the growing throngs of wildlife watchers and the shrinking ranks of hunters?  For the fact-checkers out there: The USFWS estimates that 33 states saw declines in hunting license sales over the last two decades. Massachusetts alone has seen a 50 percent falloff in hunting license sales in that period. Yes, hunting is declining. Maybe if we offer more species that can be shot…

So let’s follow this line of reasoning. There are enough cranes out there now to shoot some without causing another population crash. All right then. There are surely enough red-tailed hawks sitting along the nation’s highways to shoot some of them. Robins? Those things are everywhere, and tasty, too. And come to think of it, new great blue heron rookeries are popping up all over the place. A little fishy-tasting, but with the right marinade…

Ultimately, the proposal to hunt Tennessee’s sandhill cranes is about hubris. It’s about manipulating wild populations as we see fit, about tilting the balance of nature toward huntable species by feeding them artificial foods and encouraging them to hang around to provide us a little sport. Try as I might, I cannot cram the lanky four-foot length of a sandhill crane into the slot in my brain marked “Game Species.” They’re too tall, too graceful, too ancient and yes, much too magical. There goes my heart again. Head says: They reproduce too slowly, producing one colt per year if they’re lucky. Ducks and geese can lay a dozen eggs; a crane lays two, and only one colt usually survives. That youngster is still heavily dependent on its parents for guidance in its first winter of life, and yet we’re proposing to let hunters shoot right into those family units. For sport. For fun. For food, maybe, if they have enough strong marinade.  Pretty gamey, I’m told. I intend never to find out for myself.

Sandhill cranes with their colt.                                  Watercolor by Julie Zickefoose

We should not be marinating the meat of sandhill cranes. We should be looking up at them alive and flying, our heads thrown back in wonder, gratitude and awe. We should be searching their cloud-gray numbers for the big white cranes who travel with them, and are at risk of being shot, their  precious genes squandered in the mud of a cornfield.

In my view, the great irony in this whole proposal to hunt cranes is that the majority of people who are aware cranes exist feel exactly as I do, vastly outnumbering those who would like to take a shot at one. Note to Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin: Those cranes you’re proposing to shoot are everyone’s cranes, not just yours. They may breed in Wisconsin and pass through the southern states, but they belong to everyone, and your proposal to let a small subset of hunters fire on them is not popular with the majority who want them left alone. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

People who believe strongly in their perceived right to hunt whatever they wish can be  persuasive in characterizing birders and wildlife watchers as soft-headed and silly for having an emotional connection to birds and animals, for being guided by heart and not head. I believe to my core that it is desirable to hold some species sacred. I feel that way about sandhill cranes because I have observed, from Nebraska to New Mexico, from Michigan to Ohio, that they are potent ambassadors for wild things and wild places to the many thousands of people who are moved by them. These are not necessarily birders, just ordinary people who are stirred by the sight and sound of cranes. Cranes, I submit, are worth infinitely more alive than dead. Just ask the director of the Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary on Nebraska’s Platte River, where sandhill crane tourism brings 15,000 visitors from all 50 states and 46 foreign countries; brings more than $10 million into the local economy every year. All without firing a single shot. Wildlife watching is the fastest growing sector in tourism.

I’d love to do this experiment. Take 1,000 people who know what a sandhill crane is. What percentage of them do you think would want to bring one down with a gun? What percentage would simply want to watch one fly overhead? We haven’t even begun to tap the tourism potential of live Eastern Flyway cranes, and states are already proposing to shoot them?

Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency posted an online survey in mid-November 2010 with a simple question: “Should sandhill cranes be hunted in Tennessee?” Two buttons: Yes and No. The survey was up for perhaps three days, and abruptly taken down without explanation. No results have been posted. In response to questions on “Tennessee’s Watchable Wildlife” Facebook page, the following appeared:

Your best bet to have an impact on the TWRA decision is to contact the TWRA commissioners with letters, phone calls, etc. At some point we’ll provide the results of the survey, but keep in mind that it was not a well designed, scientific survey, it was biased in many ways and is not likely a very reliable source of information.

Birders, photographers, wildlife watchers: we don’t need SurveyMonkey to tell Tennessee what we think about opening a season on sandhill cranes. Comments period ends mid-January. A public meeting will be held Jan. 20 and 21 in Nashville, with an opportunity for public comments. Information: or 1-800-624-7406.

If you can’t attend, please…Write them NOW.


Letters: Michael Chase, Tennessee Wildlife Resources C0mmission Chairperson/PO Box 50370/Knoxville, TN  37950 email:

Governor Bill Haslam, 1701 West End Ave., Suite 300, Nashville, TN 37203 (615) 254-4799

online comments to the Governor:

Written by Julie
Julie Zickefoose is an artist, naturalist and writer specializing in natural history. Her writing is based on keen observation of animal and human behavior, and she likes to interweave solid natural history information with larger philosophical themes to challenge and inspire the reader. Julie contributes three-minute natural history commentaries to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She illustrates her books and magazine articles with her own sketches and watercolor paintings. Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) will soon be followed by a memoir about the birds she has raised, healed, studied and followed throughout her life. She lives at Indigo Hill, an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio with her husband, Bill Thompson III, their children Phoebe and Liam, and their Boston terrier, Chet Baker.