Alabama hunters will have their first opportunity in 103 years to hunt a migratory bird that has been making a steady comeback for the past few decades.
The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division will conduct a draw hunt of 400 permits to hunt sandhill cranes, becoming the third state east of the Mississippi River to hold a sandhill hunt.
“The last sandhill crane hunting in Alabama was in 1916,” said Seth Maddox, WFF Migratory Game Bird coordinator. “This is the first time in 13 years that we’ve had a new species open to hunting. The last was alligator in 2006. It’s pretty exciting.”
The sandhill crane season will be split with the first segment from Dec. 3, 2019, to Jan. 5, 2020. The second segment will be Jan. 16-31, 2020.
The daily, season and possession limit will be three birds per permit. Hunters can harvest all three birds in one day if they choose.
“This sandhill crane season came about through the feedback of hunters,” Maddox said. “They started seeing increased numbers of sandhills while they were out hunting other species, especially waterfowl. Hunters wanted the opportunity to hunt this species in Alabama. They’d heard about the seasons in Kentucky and Tennessee from their friends. Hunters have paved the way for the species recovery of sandhill crane. We want to provide hunting opportunities when they are available.”
In the early 2000s, discussions began about possible sandhill crane seasons in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. In the Eastern U.S. the subspecies is called the giant sandhill crane.
Maddox said by 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approved a sandhill crane management plan that included a hunt plan for the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Kentucky was the first state to take advantage of that,” Maddox said. “They opened their season in 2011. Tennessee opened their season in 2013. We’ll be the third state east of the Mississippi to have a sandhill season this year.”
Thirteen states west of the Mississippi River have sandhill crane hunting seasons.
“We started counting sandhills in 2010 in conjunction with our aerial waterfowl surveys,” Maddox said. “We conduct the aerial surveys each fall and winter. Since 2010, we’ve seen a 16% increase on average per year in the state.”
In 2016, WFF staff began discussions about the possibility of a sandhill season and began the tedious process to get a hunting season approved by USFWS.
“We had to go through the Flyway (The Mississippi Flyway Council) process, just like any other state that wants to add a new season on migratory birds,” Maddox said. “We began discussing that with the Flyway. We gathered all of our data and put together a proposal for a hunt plan. It took a couple of years to get through that process.”
When that effort was completed, Alabama was granted a three-year experimental season, beginning in 2019.
WFF opted to make the season a limited draw with 400 permits that will be issued through a computer-controlled random draw. Those drawn must complete the process. Once approved, each permittee will be issued three tags for a maximum total harvest of 1,200 birds.
The registration process is limited to Alabama residents 16 or older or Alabama lifetime license holders. Applicants must have their regular hunting license and a state waterfowl stamp to apply.
Maddox said the registration process will open in September and be open for several weeks. The drawing will occur in October.
However, the process is not complete even if you are lucky enough to be drawn.
“If drawn, they will have to take an online test that includes species identification and regulations,” Maddox said. “Once they pass that test, we will issue the permit and tags. Then they must purchase a federal duck stamp and HIP (Harvest Information Program) license, and if hunting on a WMA (wildlife management area), a WMA license. Once they have all that, they are good to hunt.”
Maddox said the number of permits was derived from the number of sandhill cranes counted over a five-year average. The guidelines under the hunt plan allow a state to harvest 10 percent of that five-year average.
“Our five-year average is 15,029 birds,” he said. “For the experimental season, we elected to keep the harvest below 10 percent because we wanted to take it slow and ensure hunting will not be detrimental to the population.”
Maddox said the majority of migratory sandhill cranes are found in the Tennessee River Valley with some birds wintering in Weiss Reservoir on the Coosa River.
Sandhill cranes prefer wetland habitat with emergent vegetation. Unlike other wading birds, sandhills don’t target fish or other aquatic species for forage.
“Sandhills mainly eat small grains,” Maddox said. “You see them feeding a lot in harvested grain fields, corn fields particularly in Alabama. They normally roost near water and forage during the day in the harvested grain fields. They typically roost in water to stay away from predators. But they roost in large numbers to give them more eyes to watch for predators.”
Sandhills stand 4 to 5 feet tall with a wingspan of 4 to 6 feet. Maddox said those who have harvested sandhills rave about the taste of the bird, although he’s never eaten it.
“I know they call them the ribeye of the sky,” he said. “They’re known as one of the best-tasting migratory birds out there.”
Hunting will be limited to north Alabama in a zone that runs from the Georgia state line down Interstate 20 to Birmingham, then north of I-22 to the Mississippi state line.
Maddox said the typical migration route for sandhills is to enter north Alabama before moving east into Georgia and then south to Florida.
“There are areas south of Birmingham associated with non-migratory populations in southeast Mississippi and in Florida,” he said. “Those birds are protected. That’s why we chose to keep it in north Alabama.”
After the season, all permit holders will be required to take a postseason survey provided by WFF. If those permit holders fail to complete the postseason survey, they will not be eligible for the drawing in the future. WFF is required to provide that information to USFWS to continue the experimental seasons.
As expected, Maddox said WFF received some negative feedback when the sandhill season was announced.
“We have received some negative feedback,” he said. “Mainly, the callers did not know much about the species. We try to provide them with information about what the hunt is going to be like, the data we have collected, and the vetting and thought process that has gone into this. Conservation efforts funded mostly from hunters is one of the main reasons for the rebound of the crane, similar to many other species of wildlife. Most of the people I have talked to have changed their minds by the end of the conversation, or at least been okay with it. There will still be people who are not going to be swayed because they don’t want to see this species hunted.
“But sandhills are like any other game species. A hundred years ago, deer and turkey were rare in the state. We had to build those numbers back up. It just took sandhill cranes a little longer.”
Maddox said this likely won’t be a slam-dunk for those who get permits.
“Sandhills have great eyesight and are pretty wary,” he said. “It can be tough hunting. Some people will pass-shoot them and others will use blinds and decoys. It will be interesting the first couple of years to see how hunters adapt.”
A friend of mine from Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., just outside Chattanooga, shared some insights on the Tennessee seasons, at least the first five. To his chagrin, he didn’t get drawn for last year’s season.
Tony Sanders, an outdoor writer and radio host, said, without a doubt, it’s the most exciting hunting he’s ever done.
“I’ve hunted two ways, and both are fun,” said Sanders, who also is the District 4 Wildlife Commissioner for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “I’ve hunted just pass-shooting, coming off the water going to the fields to feed. It was almost like a big dove shoot.
“But sandhills are deceptively big and extremely tough. I didn’t realize that the first year. I feel like I’m a pretty good shot. There was a group of five birds coming by. I’m on the first bird in the group. When I shot, I dropped the third bird. It didn’t make any sense. Ten minutes later, I walked to my car parked in a small food plot. The birds were flying over, and I realized how fast they were flying. These birds are so big and deceptively fast.”
Sanders most often opts to hunt cranes another way, which is in a blind with a decoy spread.
“The second way is more fun,” he said. “You set up a decoy spread and call them in. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see them cup their wings several hundred yards away, knowing they’re coming to your spread. But they are extremely wary birds. They’re like ducks on steroids. Everything has to be right, and you’ve got to be hidden.
“I hope the people of Alabama really love it. I can’t wait for our drawing. It’s our anniversary. I told my wife I had to be at the drawing. She’s great. She understood.”