The Magnificent Sandhill Crane Migration
Every spring, over half a million cranes stop for several weeks along the Platte River in Nebraska seeking rest, refuge, and nutrition.
When the Sandhill cranes first enter Nebraska, they’re so high up they’re all but invisible. You can’t blame them really; they’re shot at in every state but ours.
We Nebraskans don’t allow crane hunting– we hold these birds far too dear. So much so, in towns across our state, we look up and beg them to draw near.
Slowly they descend, over villages named Alma and Arapahoe and Minden and Funk. And by the time they get to Kearney, they seem ready to trust us. They set their wings, extend landing gear, and they’re home again, at least for the next month or so.
They seem so grateful they confer and agree to put on a daily pageant just for us. And it is spectacular.
This month some 600,000 Sandhill cranes will find rest, refuge and nutrition here along the Platte River.
While other bird populations have begun to fail at the hand of man, the cranes have thrived. Waste grain left in farmers’ fields allows them to put on a pound of fat during their month-long stay, vital energy reserves needed to fly to nesting grounds in the northern U.S., Canada, even eastern Siberia.
At dawn and dusk each day they come and go in flocks so grand they literally block the sun. From a distance they look like clouds of smoke on the horizon, with a sound of thunder as they launch into the air at once.
Three and a half feet tall, with a crown of bright red skin and a clarion call that can be heard a mile away, they can live up to 40 years, and are extremely social.
Some birds dance and sing, call and pair up. Others fight and leave their mates. Some of the youngsters act out and become juvenile delinquents. In other words, they’re a lot like us.
Believe it or not, these dense flocks are a man-made phenomenon. The birds need shin-deep water and plenty of open space to escape predators like coyotes, so conservation groups lovingly maintain several miles of river channel each year, creating a safe haven for the masses to roost each night.
In April, when the warm winds finally come, the Sandhill cranes will rise again, gliding up and up until we can’t even hear them anymore. Vanished, into a clear blue sky.
But for those of us who care, it won’t take long at all before we start looking up again. After all, the next big show is just 11 months away.