If you’ve never seen a Sandhill Crane—or even heard of one—you’ve still got a few weeks to get up to speed before the 26th annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival kicks off on January 16-17th. Even if you don't consider yourself a "bird person," these cranes are impressively beautiful, and for several months in the late fall through winter, they make their home at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, just an hour north of Chattanooga in Birchwood, TN.
Birds flock to the Hiwassee Refuge because it is the perfect combination of shallow water feeding and roosting habitat, with wet grasslands, marshes, and grain fields. They are omnivorous animals, eating seeds, berries, cultivated grains, insects, and small mammals from the surface of the ground. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency encourages their yearly return by planting corn, milo, and millet in the area.
The sandhill crane population was nearly decimated in the East during the 1800s by habitat loss and over hunting. In fact, during the mid-1920s, Eastern sandhill crane numbers were staggeringly low—as little as 50 birds in total. Remarkably, their seemingly inevitable and terminal fate wasn't sealed, and now their population is thriving with an estimated 15,000-20,000 birds.
In the early 1990s, this recovering population began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge as they traveled from the Canadian tundra to their traditional wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida.
Sandhill Cranes are elegant creatures that stand nearly 4 feet tall with a wing span of 6 feet. They have a long neck and long legs; their bodies are gray with a large tuft of feathers at the rump. They have red heads and bright white cheeks. They can live 20 years or more but have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any bird in North America (only one nest in 3 produces a chick that survives to migrate in the fall). And they are interesting to observe.
As if their appearance isn’t interesting enough, their call is described as a trumpeting, bugling, or resonating, wooden rattle, which can carry more than a mile. “You’ll frequently hear the sandhill crane’s unique calls long before you see them flying overhead in a ‘V’ formation,” says Kevin Calhoon, the Tennessee Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests. Cranes mate for life and mated pairs of cranes engage in "unison calling," where they stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The call of young birds can be easily distinguished and resembles a musical purr.
In addition to the cranes, the Hiwassee Refuge is the winter home of bald and golden eagles, and a variety of other native wildlife species including endangered whooping cranes. And there are a couple of different ways to witness all of the avian action.
If you’d like to view by water, the Tennessee Aquarium will offer two-hour excursions from a climate-controlled vessel that has a viewing deck and topside observation platform. An experienced Aquarium naturalist will be aboard for each expedition to help bring the area’s rich natural and anthropological history to life—an area which archaeologists recognize as a significant Cherokee heritage site.
If you'd prefer not to test your sea legs, you can also visit the 6,000 acre Tennessee Wildlife Refuge, and partake in the festival proceedings by land.
This 26th anniversary celebration of the festival will run from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. both days. Various vendors will be at the community center and you’ll have the opportunity to listen to live music, see special programs, including a live raptor show at 1:00pm on Saturday and 2:00pm on Sunday, and children’s activities will be available each day. There will also be a new presentation by Dr. David Aborn about the economic impact of birding and bird festivals, which will be held on January 16 at 1:00pm. You can purchase breakfast and lunch at the community center each day from 7:00-8:00 a.m. and 11:30-a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
A free bus shuttle service will be available from the Birchwood Community Center which is just three miles from the wildlife-viewing site at the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. No public parking is available at the refuge.
If you miss the festival in January but would like to see Sandhill Cranes migrate through the state, check out their stops in Pickett, Clay, Bradley, and Monroe counties in the spring and fall. It’s also possible to paddleboard, canoe, or kayak out to the Refuge from the Birchwood boat ramp and view the migrating birds and natural beauty of the area up close and personal. But please don’t do it during the festival and check local hunting schedules before you make your way onto the water.