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The ‘ribeye of the sky’ climbs to new heights in Kentucky population

Two sandhill cranes fly in a clear blue sky.
Doug Racine USFWS
Sandhill cranes are seeing big numbers in Kentucky.

One layer to the soundtrack of spring in Kentucky will crescendo in the coming weeks as the skies fill with the ethereal cooing of sandhill cranes.

Soon tens of thousands of the so-called ‘ribeyes of the sky’ will pass through the state on their journey north to nesting grounds around Wisconsin and Michigan.

The tall birds with spindly legs and bright red foreheads have been thriving in recent years, said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

“They’re really cool birds. They’re big, they’re vocal, it’s a beautiful thing to see,” he said.

At last count, the eastern population that flies through Kentucky stood around 107,000 -- the largest ever recorded.

“It’s growing, and it’s growing, and it’s growing. We are seeing the population expand into areas, nesting-wise, that never had cranes before,” Brunjes said.

Brunjes said the best places to spot the birds in Kentucky are at Barren River Lake and in Cecilia, Ky., west of Elizabethtown.

This season’s record population was matched by a record seasonal harvest.

Hunters harvested 177 cranes in the season that runs Dec. 7 through Jan. 31. Kentucky has been selling tags to hunt the birds for over a decade. This year Brunjes said the department handed out 1,200 tags among more than 600 hunters.

Brunjes said the meat is popular with hunters for a couple reasons. Sandhill cranes’ diet largely consists of grain. Plus, the cranes have a slow, rhythmic wingbeat that makes for tastier meat.

“If I put it on the grill and gave it to you, you might think that you are getting a steak,” Brunjes said.

Louisville’s Beckham Bird Club President Andrew Melnykovych said that when Kentucky opened hunting on the cranes more than a decade ago, there were some concerns it could affect the population. He’s thankful that hasn’t been the case.

“It’s a big bird. They’re about four feet tall. They travel in large numbers,” Melnykovych “They’re just really cool birds.”

He said some people continue to have concerns about hunting sandhill cranes because the birds often fly together with whooping cranes, an endangered species that can be mistaken for the sandhill crane.

Hunters do however, have to pass a bird identification test to hunt sandhill cranes in Kentucky.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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