Cranes on the Platte River
Between February and April, more than half a million sandhill cranes gather on the PLatte River in central Nebraska, staging for a journey that ends as far north as eastern Siberia.
Once upon a time, before humans diverged from chimpanzees or the Grand Canyon had been carved out of its rock, an extraordinary bird walked and flew the earth in the area we now call Nebraska. The bird stood some four feet tall and had a wingspan of more than six feet. Its Miocene neighbors included the saber-toothed deer—which sounds like a Monty Python joke but really existed—and prehistoric versions of the rhinoceros and the camel. The camels and the weird deer are gone, but astonishingly, the bird—or its structurally identical relative—is still around. We know it as the sandhill crane, and while this most ancient of birds would be a marvel in any form, it happens to participate in one of the great mass migrations on the planet, making a journey through space that is as remarkable as its journey through time.
Between February and April, more than half a million sandhill cranes crowd through a short stretch of the Platte River of central Nebraska, staging for an odyssey that ends as far north as the tundra of eastern Siberia. Along the Platte, having already flown some 600 miles from the American Southwest, they will gorge themselves on the abundant remains of numerous cornfields, gaining 20 percent of their body weight in anticipation of the thousands of miles still before them. But despite their frenzied feeding, these social birds—who mate for life and remain behind if their mate is sick or injured—still find time to do the thing for which cranes are most famous: dance.
Departing New York City for Omaha in peak crane season, I can’t help marveling at my own lucky journey through space and time. Ever since a stranger’s chance comment about the birds of Central Park led me to an introductory birdwatching class at New York City Audubon 15 years ago, I have been in love with birds and perpetually grateful to them for opening up to me the hidden wild places in my city, my country, my planet, and, most surprisingly of all, myself.
From Omaha I drive 182 miles west to Kearney, Nebraska. The moon is nearly full, massive and orange. Part of me simply decides that this is what happens when you fly to the middle of America to look at cranes; things get bigger and more beautiful, or at least noticed with a new eye. But the next day the moon is on the cover of the Omaha World-Herald, and I learn that it is a “supermoon,” closer to the earth than at any time in the past 20 or so years. Back home I might have seen a fat moon rising over the Empire State Building, but to have the oldest birds on the planet intersect with it, and with me, I need to travel 1,300 miles, to a particular place at a particular time.
The island I live on is sometimes called “the crossroads of the world,” but that depends on your definition of “world”—and “crossroads.” Look back into the 19th century, add in the overlapping trails of Pawnee and Sioux, millions of bison, the Oregon Trail, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Central Flyway for migratory birds, and suddenly the middle of Nebraska, which is smack in the middle of the United States, has a claim to make as the literal and spiritual intersection of a vast array of competing forces.
I’m in a hurry to meet the birds, so I welcome the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit on Interstate 80, which follows the contours of the Platte River—just as the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the Pony Express once did. In those days Nebraska was considered part of the “the Great American Desert,” little more than a wild corridor to greener pastures in the west. When Francis Parkman passed through the Nebraska territory in 1846, making notes for The Oregon Trail, he observed, along the banks of the Platte, the “shattered wrecks of ancient claw-footed tables” that desperate emigrants had, in exhaustion, “flung out to scorch upon the hot prairie.”
The unrelieved sameness of I-80 does little to recall those days. Only the big moon evokes the world as it was—and of course the cranes, which I begin to see amid the stubble of cut cornfields along the side of the road, 200 or so yards back from the highway. They leap into the air, squabble, take off, land, toss the occasional stick into the air with their bills, bow from time to time, and most of all feed with their heads down, their long necks extended.
Corn-made fuel has a complicated history for humans, but raw corn, which can make up more than 90 percent of the sandhill crane’s diet, will power the birds for several thousand miles, and I shudder to think what would happen if more efficient combines are created that eliminate the gleanings the birds feast on, though their omnivorous opportunism—they’ll eat seeds, berries, insects, earthworms, mice, snakes, lizards, and frogs—has preserved them in the past. But the concentrated food of farms helps compensate for the lost foraging areas and fast-running rivers once abundantly at their disposal.