Photograph Michael Forsberg, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Sandhill cranes had almost gone extinct by the 20th century, but a hunting ban helped them recover. There are now more than 600,000 in the U.S.

Photograph Michael Forsberg, Nat Geo Image Collection

Alabama almost lost its sandhill cranes. Now, hunters again will target the 'sirloin of the sky.'

Populations are stable enough that the state is allowing its first crane hunting season since 1916.

For the first time in 103 years, hunters will have a chance to bag a sandhill crane in Alabama. More than 15,000 of the long-legged gray birds migrate through northern Alabama each winter, stopping to rest and feed in wetlands, lakes, and agricultural fields. On October 2, some 600 residents entered a drawing to win one of 400 sandhill crane hunting permits.

At the turn of the 20th century, sandhill cranes had been nearly wiped out by hunters. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, however, led to a hunting ban, which gave them a chance to recover. Today, the North American population has rebounded to more than 600,000, and Alabama joins 15 other states that already allow hunting. (New Mexico was the first state to re-establish a sandhill crane hunting season, in 1961.)

Seth Maddox, the migratory game bird coordinator for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, says hunters have been asking for a sandhill crane season because they’d been seeing more of the birds, which have increased by about 16 percent annually since 2010. He says they’ve kept the number of permits limited so the hunt won’t affect their numbers.

Not everyone’s excited, however. Thousands of bird watchers flock to northern Alabama each year to see the migration spectacle during the annual Festival of the Cranes. Held mid-January at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the festival is a chance to see the sandhill cranes up close and attend nature walks, educational talks, and arts events. (Learn more about the millions of birds that migrate and where they go.)

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Some of those bird lovers are worried about the new sandhill crane hunting season—especially the possibility that a hunter could accidentally shoot one of the endangered whooping cranes sometimes seen among the more common sandhills.

“We are very protective of those whooping cranes,” says Mary Lee Ratliff, president of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation at the site. “They all have names, and they are banded, and we track them. We can’t even have one possibly get hurt.” (Read about why birds matter.)

Experiencing Alabama’s sandhill crane migration

Sandhill cranes, which are gray with red foreheads, can grow up to five feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. Their energetic courtship dances include leaping, bowing, and wing flapping. The birds mate for life, which can be some 20 years, and raise one or two chicks each year.

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One of the biggest sandhill crane spectacles is on Nebraska’s Platte River in early spring. Alabama, too, sees an influx of the birds, in late December and early January, which is celebrated with the Festival of the Cranes.

Ansel Payne, executive director of Birmingham Audubon, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, says part of the charm of sandhill cranes is seeing and hearing thousands of them during the migration in northern Alabama. “There’s just something really beautiful about being in a space that feels like it’s filled up with birds,” he says. (Want more pictures of birds? Here are some of National Geographic's favorites.)

Birmingham Audubon trusts the state will “keep the sandhill population at a healthy level, while also doing everything they can to ensure the safety of our state’s endangered whooping cranes,” Payne says.

Close monitoring

Although Maddox notes there have been no incidents of whooping cranes being mistakenly shot during the history of Tennessee’s and Kentucky’s sandhill crane hunts, Alabama isn’t taking any chances. Those selected from the drawing to get a license must complete an online test proving they can correctly identify a sandhill crane. Maddox says great blue herons are similar in coloring and stature to sandhills—much more so than whooping cranes, which are white.

Alabama hasn’t opened a hunting season on a new species since the alligator hunt in 2006. People such as lifelong hunter and veterinarian Gregg Able are excited about the chance to hunt sandhill cranes. He previously hunted them in Texas, and says they’re magnificent birds and challenging to hunt.

“It’s a total experience to get out and to try to bag one,” he says. “They are very vocal with a distinctive and extremely loud call, and they are very wary.” He’s also eager to taste crane, as they’re often known as “ribeye of the sky” or “flying sirloin.”

To allow the state to track the results of the hunt, license holders are required to complete an online survey, regardless of whether they shot a crane or even hunted.

Maddox says the typical success rate for these hunts is about 32 percent. The hunting season will run December 3 through January 31, with an almost two-week long break in the middle for the January Festival of Cranes.