Cranes on the Platte River

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.

By Jonathan Rosen
Published: January-February 2013

On my drive back to the Omaha airport, I stop at a field a few exits off of I-80, not far from Kearney. I've received a murmured suggestion, more like a gambling tip, that I look there for a "big white bird," code for a highly endangered whooping crane. Like sandhills, whoopers are an ancient species but proof that nature does not have a first hired, last fired policy--there were only 15 individuals in 1941, and even today, after vigorous conservation and breeding efforts, there are fewer than 400 whooping cranes left in the wild.

Just as sandhills are the most numerous, whoopers are the scarcest of the world's 15 species of cranes, but the two species overlap at various points on their journey, and just a few weeks after I leave Nebraska, 11 are seen in the Platte from the blinds at Rowe. I've long wanted to see whooping cranes, snow-white birds with black wingtips that, at five feet, are the tallest North American bird, as well as one of the rarest. It is because of the whoopers' endangered status that Federal money can be used to maintain the Platte, which in turn benefits sandhills and other species. It is the whooping cranes that carry their far more numerous cousins on their endangered backs.

I fail to find the whooper at the designated exit, though there are plenty of sandhills grazing and flapping. Nothing demotes a magnificent bird faster than redefining it as "not the bird I'm looking for." Still, I know I will pine for these birds as soon as I'm back in New York. And both species should be held together in the mind, the white bird somehow the shadow of the gray one, a reminder of the threat of extinction in the midst of abundance, and of the double vision required by birdwatching.  

This story originally ran in the January-February 2013 issue as "Lords of the Dance."


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Cranes Need Help Now!

I have seen recent news articles on television and the Internet that WI is asking for public comments on a nonlethal repellent that can be put on corn seeds to keep the cranes from eating it. Apparently they eat the seed once and then are repelled from eating it again. It just breaks my heart that this is now being considered. It seems like every time we get a species (any species bird or other) back from the brink of extinction that we then put a hunting limit in place or try and drop the numbers down in some form or manner. I realize that farmers have a concern about their crops, but something just doesn't seem right about the way we go about taking care of our animals.

GMO corn

I worry how GMO corn will impact wildlife

Sandhill Cranes

What do you suppose the cranes ate before we started raising corn out here?

Sandhill Cranes

The Sandhill Cranes migrate through Star Valley, Wyoming every spring and fall by the hundreds, if not thousands. The major crop is hay, but there are also plenty of insects, mice, voles, frogs, snakes, and Three Rivers full of fish. I have photographed them pecking in the farmer's field behind our property, and in the nearby Alpine Elk Reserve where they spread out hay each winter to feed the Elk. But I think the main purpose for the Cranes flying through Star Valley is to gain altitude for their long flight south. Heavy winds flow across the Palisades Reservoir into the Three Rivers area in Alpine and cause an updraft as they hit the mountain peaks there. I witnessed several flocks of White Pelicans circling over that area to gain several thousand feet of altitude before they turned and flew south. That's how high the Cranes are when they fly over our home during migration. Sometimes so high I can barely see them. The only way that I know they are there is because their raucous calls echo off the mountain peaks all the way. There's no sound like it.

Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River


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