Sandhill Crane Hunting

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill cranes are among North America’s largest and most coveted gamebirds.

Until recently, the hunter never felt threatened by any game bird he had hunted. In fact, the thought that any feathered game might actually present a danger to him had never crossed his mind.

Perhaps one of the wild turkeys he had shot could have tried spiking him with its spurs, but so far, none had been so inclined.

He had hunted snipe and woodcocks for decades, but never worried one might impale him on its stiletto-like beak.

Bobwhite quail? His poor aim had resulted in a few less-than-clean kills. But he felt remorse, not fright, when he picked up the poor creatures.

A mallard bit him once; that hurt like the dickens. But the duck’s attempt to pinch the man to death made him mad; it didn’t scare him.

The closest he had come to being mortally wounded by a game bird was when a snow goose shot by a fellow hunter crashed into his shoulder, making him wonder if protective padding should be mandatory gear for this sort of waterfowling.

Well, that was his closest call. A sandhill crane hunt changed all that.

Sandhills are big. They’re as tall as humans, with a wingspan approaching 7 feet. For this reason, many hunters consider this the numero uno game bird.

Sandhill cranes also are delicious. Successful hunters are rewarded with a trophy game bird and a great addition to the dinner table. Sandhills didn't earn nicknames like “the prime rib of game birds” or “ribeye in the sky” by accident.

So the man started looking for an opportunity to hunt these gigantic, delicious game birds. And lucky him … he was invited to hunt with Lawton, Oklahoma, crane guide Curt Wilkerson.

Sandhill Crane Hunting
A proud crane hunter with his “ribeye of the sky.”

So it was he found himself waking at 3 a.m. on a cold November night to help stake out 200 full-body crane decoys in a fallow field. At this point, he was still unaware of the potential dangers of hunting these modern pterosaurs. But his innocence wouldn’t last long.

The seven crane hunters in his party were hidden in a patch of tall grass when the sun rose and the first flocks of cranes started their way. Wilkerson, who’s been guiding crane hunters for more than a decade, used his voice to imitate the raucous, rolling notes of their quarry. Huddled like a field mouse beneath the tussocks, the hunters listened as the cranes’ calls grew increasingly louder.

It’s important to be well-concealed when hunting cranes. These birds have eyes keener than those of wild turkeys, and they quickly veer away if anything’s amiss. Wilkerson told the men to remain motionless and not to look up until he called the shot.

Soon they could hear softer, purring notes from the cranes. It sounded like they were directly above them, but the astounding volume of their voices is deceptive. Several minutes passed before they were close enough for Curt’s signal: “Shooooot!” And two cranes got shot.

The crane hunter in our story was not among the shooters in this opening volley. The birds were too far, his shooting skills too limited. But he joined the other hunters to admire the pair of tall, handsome, smoky-gray birds just taken. A crimson cap adorned each crane’s head.

Still, no signs of danger, no thoughts of peril. Why worry? They were bird hunting, not stalking Cape buffaloes or Kodiak bears.

More mouth calling. More cranes. Concealed again, they waited. Then, finally, the signal came: “Shoooot!”

Sandhill Crane
Cranes often are hunted over decoys, with large spreads being most effective.

This time, the cranes veered toward our hunter. He dropped one, and two of his hunting companions found their mark as well. Three sandhills hit the ground like sky-diving St. Bernards. The hunters went to retrieve the birds.

The cranes were lying motionless on the open earth. By all appearances, they were dead … until one man bent over to to pick up a bird.

Imagine a crumpled marionette suddenly springing to life as the puppeteer lifts its strings. That crane did that. It startled us the hunters, one of whom now found himself eye-to-eye with a fiercely angry bird, a bird with a foot-long rapier for a beak, a bird with an eagle’s talons, a bird now trying to pounce on the man.

“Shoot him! Shoot him!” the hunting guide screamed. The crane hunter, with obvious pleasure, obliged. Our hunter is now standing beside another crane, totally shocked at what he has just seen. Well, almost totally. His distress skyrocketed when the bird beside him decided to reenact the drama just played out.

A scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” raced through the crane hunter’s mind—the scene where the guy’s eyes get pecked out by seagulls. Only this is no itty-bitty seagull. It’s more like one of the bloodthirsty pterodactyls from “Jurassic Park.”

Wilkerson screams again: “Shoot him! Shoot him!” And just as the demon is about to thrust his beak through the hunter’s pounding heart, he does.

Wilkerson had warned them. “Cranes can be dangerous,” he said. “Be careful how you approach birds, even when they look like they’re dead.”

They ignored his warnings. Big Bird, dangerous? Get real!

After “The Attack,” Wilkerson told a story that reinforced the need to respect sandhill cranes.

On another day in another field, his clients shot several cranes they retrieved and covered with a tarp. Returning to his hiding place, Wilkerson heard a blood-curdling scream. He turned to see one of the hunters trying to fight off an attacking crane. The man had the sandhill’s neck in a death-grip, but again and again the bird buried its knifelike beak in his face. The talons of one foot were embedded in the man’s arm; those of the other were locked in his thigh.

Fortunately, the bird’s thrusting bill missed his eyes, but the hunter was frightfully injured and had to be transported to a hospital.

The man had been warned. But like the hunters in our story, he had disregarded what he considered a frivolous admonition.

The crane hunter and his friends killed several more cranes that day, but there were no further attacks. They made sure the birds were dead—real dead—before retrieving them.

And when the crane hunt was done, they feasted on ribeyes from the sky.

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