How do I get rid of sandhill cranes in my yard and garden?

Here are suggestions for getting uninvited dinner guests like sandhill cranes to vacate.

Sandhill cranes can be a nuisance for gardeners. Photo: Alfred Viola, Northeastern University, Bugwood.org

Sandhill cranes can be a nuisance for gardeners. Photo: Alfred Viola, Northeastern University, Bugwood.org

Many gardeners feed birds because it’s all part of enjoying nature in your backyard. However, some gardener-birders have discovered with abundant feeding opportunities, not just small birds drop by for a snack. It could be critters with fur coats or extremely large birds. Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators and Master Gardener hotlines periodically get calls about big birds becoming big pests.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are the largest birds that most people will have visit their yards. Adult sandhill cranes measure 3-4 feet tall with long legs and necks and a wingspan of about 5 feet. They have a patch of red on their featherless foreheads and white-feathered cheeks. Their body color can be anywhere from a soft gray to an almost brown or red-gray. This is because sandhill cranes preen and groom themselves with mud. The color of the mud can tint their feathers.

Sandhill cranes are described as “opportunistic feeders” and have a varied diet. This is what can bring them into yards and gardens. Some of these areas are close to lakes and marshes, but in Michigan, that’s just about everywhere. Sandhill cranes feed on frogs, fish and insects as well as fruit, aquatic plants and seeds. A beautiful yard and garden plus multiple bird feeders and bird baths appear as a welcome oasis to these cranes.

People report that the birds are gobbling up spilled bird seed, snapping off flower heads and digging up small plants and bulbs. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Some are comfortable enough with their surroundings that they stalk around and bloop on decks and pick and poke at deck furniture, window glass and screens on doors.

Sandhill cranes that have almost unlimited food and water and are going to be less bothered by predators because of the backyard setting. This crane paradise can be the gardener’s seventh ring of Hades. Before human-initiated evil ensues, it is important to recognize who got this gravy train rolling. If a divine habitat has been created, it needs to be disassembled if sandhill cranes are not welcome garden guests. This is not about harming the cranes. It’s about undoing what you have created.

Take down bird feeders for a period of time to cut off the free bird seed. During the summer, wild birds should be able to find food unless there is a drought. Buy a roll of chicken wire and shape a length into an arc and place it like a see-through tunnel over flowers that are being consumed. Push a stick through the wire periodically to anchor the wire in place. Other type of fencing could be used as long as the holes are small enough that cranes cannot stick their heads through the holes.

Sandhill cranes and birds in general are not affected by repellants, so bad-smelling sprays will not change their behavior. Cardboard owls will not affect them in any way. Birds see movement of objects, but not stationary objects. Silent movement presents the greatest risk to most critters. This is why a cat can lie under a birdfeeder and birds do not leave until the cat twitches.

Smart gardeners realize that any moving object like a pinwheel will only work for a short period of time until birds get used to it and realize it is not a threat. It’s about assembling an arsenal of scary, moving objects and swapping them out periodically. Other moving things could be a string of triangular flags a car dealer uses, long strips of aluminum foil taped to a string and put up so the wind blows it around or disposable aluminum pie plates hung up by a hole in the rim so they are shiny and vertical and not horizontal. Being creative in the moving, shiny object department will help reinforce the no free meal and protected plant policy.

Sometimes it is important to realize too much nature is not necessarily a good thing. Every smart gardener gets to set their own limits. It’s also not good for sandhill cranes to depend on humans to feed them. Sandhill cranes can live to be 20 years old and their children stay with the parents for a year. You could have a steadily growing herd of mooches if you allow it.

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