Witnessing the gathering of half a million cranes under a blazon Nebraska sunset stirs our senses and sparks
our imagination like few experiences can. What better way to rejuvenate your
spirit than with the sights and sounds of such a spectacle with a cold March
wind slapping your cheeks? "Why do they stage here along the Platte?", "Where are they going", and "Where do they come from?" are
but a few of the many questions visitors ask.
Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. Fossil records place Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska more than nine million years ago, long before there was a Platte River, which, by comparison, is only a youthful 10,000 years of age. The landscape then was savanna-like and its inhabitants were more like that of modern East Africa; varieties of rhinos, camels, and elephants long since extinct. Yet cranes survived and watched as American bison, pronghorn, and wapiti evolved on the prairies. Humans now dominate the landscape having replaced the bison with cattle and the prairie with corn and concrete. This startling transition occurred in less than 150 years, a mere blink of an eye in geologic time!
There are six subspecies of Sandhill Cranes of which three are migratory and three are non-migratory. Two of the non-migratory subspecies are endangered: the Mississippi and Cuban Sandhill Crane. The Florida sandhill crane is doing well. All of the migratory subspecies pass through Nebraska and their populations are thriving. The most numerous is the lesser sandhill crane which is the smallest subspecies. The Canadian, or intermediate, sandhill crane comprise about 15 percent, and the greater sandhill crane comprises about 5 percent of the birds staging along the Platte.
The Central Flyway cranes winter in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. They usually begin arriving along the Platte in February. Numbers continue to climb, peaking in late March. About April 10, a mass exodus occurs, with a few stragglers remaining through early May. Their nesting grounds vary depending on the subspecies. The greater sandhill crane nests in western Minnesota and the Interlake region of Manitoba, while the Canadian subspecies occurs throughout central Canada from the Hudson Bay west to the Rocky Mountains. The lesser sandhill crane is a bird of the high arctic, nesting across the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska. About 80,000 cross the Bering Strait to nest in eastern Siberia.
An individual crane spends about 29 days along the Platte. During that time, it will deposit up to a pound of fat, which provides the energy necessary to complete the migration and initiate nesting. About 90 percent of their diet consists of corn while the remaining 10 percent is made up of invertebrates such as earthworms, snails, and insect larvae. It has been estimated that the cranes consume nearly 1,600 tons of corn during their stay. Fortunately, this is waste grain leftover from the fall harvest and, as such, provides a service to the local farmers by removing what would become volunteer corn in the next year's crop. Before there was corn, cranes ate starchy tubers from a variety of aquatic plants such as nutsedge, a species once abundant in the widespread wetlands bordering the Platte before European settlement. Now about 75 percent of these wetlands have been converted to croplands.
At dusk, the cranes gather along the broad, shallow reaches of the Platte to roost for the night. They prefer to stand in water about six inches deep, taking on the configuration of submerged sandbars. Densities of more than 12,000 cranes per half mile of river can occur. During inclement weather they seek out the narrower, more protected stretches of the river. Occasionally, the river freezes, and the birds must roost in the fields adjacent to the river, huddled together for warmth and protection.
Dining & Dancing
At dawn, the cranes leave the river and head to the fields to feed. They usually range within five miles of the river. The cornfields provide cranes with a source of energy , while meadows and alfalfa fields provide essential proteins and minerals. They also serve an important social function as loafing and courtship areas.
The "dance" of the Sandhill Crane is well known. Pairs engage in elaborate bowing displays with outstretched wings and leap high into the air. Often, a corncob or stick is picked up and thrown upward repeatedly. This behavior is believed to strengthen or establish new pair bonds. Although cranes generally "mate for life" (i.e. pairs remain faithful), they are hunted in several states and provinces, and if mates are lost, cranes will select another mate if necessary. Consequently, the Platte has been referred to as "the greatest singles bar for cranes" or "the melting pot of crane world",
since it provides the best opportunity to find a new mate as sub-populations
from throughout the Northern Hemisphere mingle.
Sandhill cranes are long-lived; some have been known
to live more than 25 years in the wild. They do not attain sexual maturity
until they are three to five years old. Their ground nest is built from nearby
vegetation scraped in a small mound. Cranes lay two eggs, although it is
rare for both young cranes to survive the 10 weeks to flight stage. The family
group remains intact through the following spring, and if you look closely
at the flocks in the flocks in the fields, you will easily observe these
three-bird families. The young have a distinctive "peep" call so listen closely
and you will hear them. After the cranes leave the Platte, the family ties
are severed and the young are on their own.
At midday when the sun is shining, look for soaring "kettles" of
cranes over the river valley. These groups appear as wisps of smoke from
a distance. The birds are testing the thermals and keeping their flight muscles
toned for the journey, that lies ahead. Cranes are diurnal or daytime migrants
and use thermals to their advantage. They will ride the thermal higher and
higher up to an altitude of a couple of thousand feet, then they will glide
northward in wavering lines losing altitude as they go until they reach the
next thermal, spiraling upwards to repeat the process. This method of migration
is energy efficient, more so than the power-flapping flight of other species
such as geese. On a good day, cranes can travel up to 500 miles although
200 to 300 miles is more typical. In the late afternoon, they seek a wetland
of some type to roost for the night and depart the next morning weather permitting,
until they reach their destination.
Understanding the biology of these birds will add to your enjoyment and appreciation as you watch them in their daily activities and marvel at the magic of their migration.
More Video Clips
Sandhills cranes feed in a meadow just before sunset. Thousands of cranes fill the sky as they settle into the shallow river
channel where they will spend the night.
4.2 Meg - 45 seconds - 320x240 View the clip
Sandhills cranes near the Audobon Society's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska. After feeding in corn fields during the afternoon,
the cranes move to wet meadow where they search for small invertebrates. As sunset nears they move onto the river sand
Platte river sandbars where they spend the night.
5.2 Meg - 57 seconds - 320x240 View the clip