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DAVIS COLUMN: Birds’ big dances begin

DAVIS COLUMN: Birds’ big dances begin

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Some animals display and others chase, but an equally-interesting, mate-attracting maneuver is dancing.

Often a ground ruse, but taking to the air — even the sky — are options.

Wisconsin’s massive sandhill cranes combine their unmistakable calls with wing spreading and jumping steps to tell their mates-for-life that spring, egg-laying, and nesting are of significance now, before it’s too late.

Anatomically these cranes have wingspans of 6-7 feet, long-legged and necked; males are larger still. Adults are all-gray, with a bald, red skin patch on each birds’ forehead.

This is the largest of six sandhill races and they nest here, too, hence the spring dance is common in open pastures, fields and marshlands.

It may appear the birds change from a grayish (sometimes called roan) plumage to a rust color over most body areas where they can reach the feathers with their bills. When cranes feed, often by digging in the wet ground, the soil and tainted water get transferred to the feathers through preening and dressing plumage.

Other stain colors are found in birds in different regions, including birds that are brick red and yellow to red-brown.

The 1-3 eggs are laid 2-3 days apart causing some aggression of the hatched chicks, soon called colts, due to their strong legs used to run.

When cranes flock, as they commonly do during autumn migrations, dance is often used as a noun for the group’s name, but now it’s a verb describing springing into action. The display is back to being a noun, a dance.

Sandhill cranes are not hunted in Wisconsin, but are in some states.

Prairie chickens, a member of the grouse family, also display a dance during spring mating season in areas called leks. The American woodcock’s sky dance was made famous by Aldo Leopold’s description in his, “A Sand County Almanac,” published in 1949, a year after his death at age 61.

Later in spring, male ruby-throated hummingbirds perform a mating dance, too, appearing to swing in large arches seeming to impress and entice females perched nearby, commonly in open woods.

While some wildlife uses these maneuvers to declare spring, we generally stare, sometimes with amazement, at our favorite icon, which says spring’s here.

“I saw my first groundhog this morning,” said Doug Williams, at Portage’s D W Sports Center. “Last night there was a skunk out, not one of the many road-kills I’ve seen. I don’t count those.”

Williams said the walleyes on the Wisconsin River are snapping, moving up closer to the dams, and can even be caught from shore using a lead head, a plastic minnow or hair jig, but not too long a tail.

“Ammunition for trap shooters is still in short supply,” he added.

John Borzick, at Tall Tails Sports and Spirits in Boscobel, looks for the ice to break up, like now, when the anglers are catching big perch and long lining for northerns, walleyes and even catfish on the Mississippi River. Some perch are 15-inchers, he said.

“Acorn crop was way down last fall, so that’s going to determine to large part where the turkeys are feeding this spring. Some say birds are up, others say down, but it depends on where you’re at,” he added.

Wayne Smith, near Yellowstone Lake in Lafayette County, said he listens for more intense gobbling to turn his mood to spring.

“I drew Period C, and will buy leftovers, D and E but there is usually plenty Period F left when that season rolls around so I’ll wait and see on that one," he said.

“Life is good. I’m still trapping beavers; field trials are starting. It’s a wonderful life; this is springtime.”

Late, wet snow gave trackers a sneak view of what’s out and about in turkeys, too, with these tracks identifying species and the gender, too.

Trout anglers are enjoying the steady water levels as they practice for the take-home season opener in early May.

A few flowers are showing but mostly on maples and elms. Watch these as “squirrel bait” blooms as April progresses.

Eagle eyes are mostly seeing incubation, while some hope to see birds stand up in the nests and beginning feeding between longer brooding spells.

Rhubarb, asparagus, pasque flowers and marsh marigolds are about to be on the watch list.

Careful spring pruning of evergreens and deciduous shrubs can now be safely done, but not those where flower buds are forming unless those spring flowers are not desired this year.

Application for permits should be watched carefully when fishing and hunting license renewals are purchased.

Many are hoping the DNR begins to slowly open to the public this spring so as to return to some favored traditions, in person service, and an attempt to hold those rafts of new users of parks, streams, trails, and fields, as they look to continue outdoors adventures they discovered or rediscovered during the lock down during the last 12 months.

Spring is a great season to observe beginnings of plant growth and animal recruitment, albeit mostly non-consumptive gathering.

Contact Jerry Davis, a freelance writer, at or 608-924-1112.

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