Sandhill cranes Credit: Saleem Siddiqui/Flickr

CHICAGO — It’s a pigeon. It’s a plane. No … it’s a crane.

Sandhill cranes are migrating through Chicago in the tens of thousands, according to the Chicago Ornithological Society — and neighbors who’ve had to cover their ears.

“Oh, God yes, they’re loud,” said Edward Warden, president of the birding society. “The best way I can describe it is an overly excited trumpeting sound. There’s a weird sense the cranes are just excited to be alive and flying.”

Sandhill cranes are 3 to 4 feet tall. They nest in Cook County forest preserves and in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, Warden said.

They’re a rare sight — except when they migrate.

An unseasonably warm November was broken up by a jarring cold front, which made waters freeze and quickly sent the birds flying, Warden said.

“They realized, ‘We gotta get outta here,'” Warden said. “We’re seeing a higher density of them moving very suddenly.”

One hawk-watching group counted 10,000 cranes coming through the North Side in a single day, Warden said.

Most sandhill cranes must fly through Chicago, which is a “bend in the road” before they can reach water and travel towards the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, a “central staging area” for cranes who then migrate further to warmer parts of central and south United States, Warden said.

Small flocks navigating Chicago skies often “circle up, mesh together and continue as a larger flock,” Warden said. That could mean 500-plus cranes traveling and squawking as one unit.

“These birds are just so numerous,” Warden said. “They can be thousands of meters above you and you can still hear them. They’re noisy, raucous birds.”

The sudden switch-ups in weather have been tough to gauge this year, but Warden said he expects the cranes will continue migrating through December.

“It’s possible that this is the peak,” Warden said. “But we can’t assume that there won’t be another wave to come.”

A flock of sandhill cranes migrate during golden hour at Winnemac Park in Lincoln Square on Nov. 21, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago