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Hunting sandhill cranes isn’t for everybody, but it isn’t unethical

Sandhill cranes have made dramatic comeback make for spectacular images such as this one captured last week by Bill Peak

Sandhill cranes have made a dramatic comeback and make for spectacular images, such as this one captured last week by Bill Peak in a flooded field along the Kankakee River in Indiana. | For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 7, 2014 6:25AM



Hunting sandhill cranes is like eating horse meat: In terms of science, there is nothing wrong with either.

But I have no interest in hunting sandhill cranes or eating horse meat.

I came to mulling this because of a question from faithful reader Craig Holderness.

In the last decade or so, sandhills have become the great harbinger of seasonal change in the Chicago area. And we have one of the great stopovers for sandhill cranes nearby at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, southeast of Valparaiso, Ind. In the fall, as many as 20,000 sandhill cranes congregate there.

For the last couple of weeks, sandhill cranes have been migrating through with their distinctive croaks or kroos announcing the much-anticipated arrival of spring (false or otherwise) to Chicago and the suburbs.

After a discussion of this, Holderness had this question.

‘‘I read recently that Tennessee has — or is about to put in place — a sandhill crane-hunting season,’’ he emailed.

Several states offer hunting for sandhill cranes. Tennessee became the second state east of the Mississippi River — Kentucky was the first in 2011 — to offer it, with its first season held Nov. 28, 2013, to Jan. 1, 2014.

‘‘I understand there is need to manage wildlife populations, and hunting is one tool available in that management plan,’’ Holderness emailed. ‘‘Just appears to me that a crane is a big, lumbering bird that wouldn’t offer much shooting sport. Perhaps the challenge is getting close enough to them to get a good shot off. Are cranes really a game-worthy bird? What do you think?

‘‘By the way, I have hunted pheasants and ducks, so I’m not anti-hunting. I am an avid birder, too.’’

One defining feature of being human — or what I consider an advanced human — is the ability to hold or juggle competing ideas at the same time.

I’m not a vegetarian, but I have no desire to try horse meat. It’s a cultural aversion, not a scientific one.

I have a couple of problems with hunting sandhill cranes for myself, but not necessarily for everybody.

Part of it is that I don’t particularly want to shoot one because they fascinate me. I try to make a trek to Jasper-Pulaski each fall. I stop what I am doing when I hear the first ones overhead each fall or spring. I’ve taught my kids to pick out their calls.

Yet wood ducks are among my favorite birds, but they are also my favorite waterfowl to hunt.

Part of it has to do with Holderness’ question about the game-worthiness of sandhill cranes as a sporting bird. It is one thing to try to shoot a woodie whistling past in a split-second and another to shoot a sandhill, even one artfully brought to decoys.

Then there is the matter of eating sandhills. Those who hunt them — or want to — have dubbed them ‘‘ribeye of the sky.’’ That always struck me as a clichéd justification for hunting them.

Then again, I should hunt and eat them at least once, much like I have hogged for catfish and gone bowfishing for carp. Different experiences broaden and enrich the world.

In the end, hunting sandhill cranes — now that their populations are healthy and expanding — is a choice or a personal decision, not an ethical or moral one. Far too often in our shouting world, that fine distinction is lost in the blather.



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