Nature up close: Sandhill cranes vs. a black bear


A female sandhill crane sitting on her two eggs.

By "Sunday Morning" contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg. 

This isn't something I would expect you to have spent a long time thinking about, but what do you figure would happen if a black bear encountered a sandhill crane? I know, I never thought about it either, until I saw it getting ready to happen on the north side of Yellowstone National Park. I just knew a sandhill crane, or at least its chicks, was getting ready to die.

There is a smallish lake in Yellowstone where we were filming ruddy ducks. It was spring time and the male ruddy ducks were doing their mating displays by holding their tail straight up in the air and ritualistically bobbing their head up and down several times. Something I don't find all that appealing, but I guess female ruddy ducks really like it, and the males do have very attractive bright, blue bills.

We had been hanging around the lake for several days because a pair of sandhill cranes was nesting on a small island in the lake and their two eggs had very recently hatched. There were several other people there, and one of them noticed a black bear approaching the northwest corner of the lake. Because it was a good, safe distance from us we didn't move, but we immediately began to worry about the sandhills.  The bear walked into the water and started swimming to the backside of the lake, directly towards where the cranes were walking around feeding their two two-day-old chicks.

Oh no! Those cute little chicks were going to become a bear snack!

One of the two sandhill crane chicks, when it was one day old.

It took the bear a few minutes to swim the lake. Once it got to the backside, near the sandhills, it got out and shook the water off like a dog. It was then we realized it didn't have a clue those sandhills were there. Maybe it would go on its way and the chicks would be spared.

The bear didn't know the sandhills were there, but the cranes sure knew the bear was there. The female crane began walking up the hill behind the lake as fast as the chicks could follow her through the tall grass and flowers. At the same time the male came running towards the bear. What was he thinking? A sandhill crane was going to attack a black bear?! Helplessly, we prepared to watch a daddy sandhill die.

The male sandhill crane. 

But we way underestimated this particular sandhill. Once the startled bear saw the crane it high-tailed it up a nearby pine tree. The crane looked victorious. The bear came back down, still not sure what it was up against. It then started running up the hill, not so much running towards the babies but running away from the male sandhill.

The sandhill immediately jumped up on to a huge rock and literally hurled itself at the bear. The bear looked shocked, and totally confused. 

The sandhill crane, ready to pounce on the black bear.

It ran to another nearby pine tree, hesitated for a moment as the sandhill made threatening gestures, and then climbed the tree as fast as it could.

It sat up in that tree for a couple of minutes, looking embarrassed that a bird had just successfully chased it up a tree. It finally decided to come down, and once it reached the ground the male crane came really close, spread its wings and threatened it again. The bear looked at him and immediately went back up the tree. This time it stayed up there for a good while. As the crane seemed to relax the bear came down. Just as it got to the ground the crane came after it again. 

The sandhill threatening the black bear, just before the bear took off for good.

This time the bear had had enough. It didn't even stop when it got to the base of the tree. It just took off to the east, as fast as it could with a super-mad sandhill crane on its tail. Once the crane was happy the bear was leaving it came back and began calling. A long, triumphant, I won this one call. The female crane came down the hill and joined him in calling.

Afterwards we all stood around discussing what had happened, how likely it was that the sandhill was able to chase the bear away, and the almost certain fact that we would never see anything like that again.

The male and female cranes, victorious.

Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos. 

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