By DAN WHITTLE/ Courier Correspondent
"Birds of a feather flock together."
And that's a problem in Tennessee when thousands of Sandhill Cranes fly in annually causing problems outside the state's two wildlife refuge areas in West and East Tennessee, says Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency spokesman Dan Hicks of Crossville.
"The Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge (near Chattanooga) was designed for ducks and geese," Hicks described. "But during the last two decades, the cranes have taken over to the point they consume the corn there before the ducks and geese fly through on their migratory route.
"At our peak bird survey counts, we've had as many as 70,000 cranes at Hiwassee, with a current average of 22,000 per day, which is a very significant increase in bird counts," Hicks added. "With cranes also increasing in the West Tennessee (Obion County) Hop-In Wildlife Refuge, we're receiving increased local complaints of crop and field damage outside the refuge areas."
State wildlife management officials are considering allowing limited hunting of the cranes, due to the increase in birds and increase in property damage reports, Hicks confirmed.
"But, this experimental controlled hunt would be very limited. It won't be a bunch of Tennessee rednecks driving around and firing on the birds from the back of their pickups," Hicks accounted.
"There will be no hunting allowed in the two protected refuge areas," he described. "Hunters would have to get permission from individual land owners."
Hicks added complaints from nature groups have increased since it became public that government wildlife management people are considering limited hunting of the state's largest bird species that has wing spans between five and seven feet.
Murfreesboro wildlife photographer Bob Timmerman is opposed to the state allowing the hunting of Sandhill Cranes.
"In my trips to photograph Sandhills in the Hiawassee Refuge area, I've observed endangered Whooping Cranes flying among them," Timmerman shared. "There's no way hunters will distinguish between the two. One Whooping Crane killed by hunting is one crane too many."
Timmerman is familiar with bird counts at Hiwassee: "A farm owner near Hiwassee Refuge where the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers come together has allowed me to come on his land and photograph the Sandhills, and I can tell you they swarm that area in numbers too vast to imagine.
"The sound of thousands of noisy birds calling back and forth is deafening down there," Timmerman added. "But, on those trips, I also see bald eagles, great blue herons, osprey and several other birds. I've been with bird hunters and I don't trust your average guy to know the difference between one crane and an endangered one."
Warren County's Benton Basham, an internationally-recognized authority on birds and their environment, confirms Sandhill Cranes' population has increased dramatically in recent years.
"I'll trust the decision and studies made by Tennessee Wildlife officials, if they deem it necessary to allow hunting of the cranes," Viola resident Basham noted. "They have to have hunts in multiple western states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, because of increased numbers of the birds. Cranes passing through Tennessee on migratory routes have dramatically increased in recent years."
The Warren County native began his nature studies as a student back in the 1950s at the University of Tennessee. He's been asked to make presentations of his studies around the globe, including Harvard University.