Cranes and Conservation on the Platte River

Sandhill cranes, Platte River, Rowe Sanctuary

Last week I accompanied my parents to southern Nebraska, to see the world-famous migration of sandhill cranes on the Platte River. It was my first time, and might not be the last.

A trip there during “crane season”, when hundreds of thousands of cranes funnel through the Platte, is a must-see event for avid birders. For the rest of us, the massive gathering is a chance to experience something unique and awe-inspiring.

While we would arrive near the end of the season, there were plenty of birds hanging around. The last official count before we got there was something like 486,000, plus or minus 72,000. Should be enough to inspire feelings of awe, I thought. 

Ahead of time, one of the things I wondered most was how it would all sound. What I can say now is that it was like being in a large crowd: you can hear those individuals closer to you, with a general din always in the background. 

A Crane-cophany

The cranes were quietest when we arrived in the dark, yet were already noisy. As daylight grew, nothing changed much in their behavior. They may have gotten louder, but not remarkably so. They didn’t move around much. I wondered what they might be waiting for. 

When the first distant cloud took flight some distance up the river, it erupted like a crowd in a faraway football stadium. The cranes nearest us fell silent for a moment. 

The flock expanded and thinned as it swept downriver, like a billow of smoke. As it moved, others lifted off, joining them or setting back down. The roar peaked in intensity as the wave overtook us. You could still discern individual calls, but the nature of the sound changed into something almost altogether different. 

As they passed, the herd stretched horizon to horizon in an unorganized flurry. Thousands of cranes going in many directions. Enormous groups loosely breaking up into smaller groups. Stratified layers of cranes drifting, swirling, sweeping. Both straining against the wind and riding it. 

It was wonderfully chaotic. 

Once they started flying, there were always cranes in the air. Exiting the river, entering the river. Lifting off, relocating, landing. Flapping, gliding, splashing. Constant movement. 

Far upriver, enormous groups lifted off now and again like the first wave. One of our guides speculated that there could be an eagle scaring them up, though it couldn’t be seen. 

Other than the big herds in various stages of taking off, those flying around seemed to be mostly in groups of about five to twelve. There were lots of pairs (presumably mating pairs), and remarkably few singles. 

All along, the prehistoric call that defies description never dropped below a dull roar. 

A Quiet Reminder

About an hour into daylight, a good number of cranes had left for the day to feed in nearby fields. When all those nearest us had gone, one remained. Upon noticing it, I thought, that’s not a good sign. Apparently, it had been around a few days. 

Something about it didn’t look right. It was thought to have a broken wing, possibly from flying into a power line. It wandered around that part of the river, presumably looking for something to eat. 

No doubt that crane will eventually fall victim to another species that benefits from a temporary gathering like that, like eagles or coyotes. I’ve witnessed the same kind of thing elsewhere during migrations. Not everyone will survive the journey, of course, and eaglets and pups gotta eat, too. 

So, while we humans travel long distances to witness the majesty of something like a crane migration, it was good to be reminded that it’s not all majestic. Nature isn’t always pretty. 

While potentially sad, it can be comforting in a way. If the river ecosystem is healthy, there will be predators as well as prey. If nature continues to do what nature does, death will continue to be a part of life. 

Knowing that ecosystems are healthy and functioning isn’t typically flashy or awe-inspiring. But that should be the ultimate goal of all conservation activities. Done right, conservation carried out by humans enables everything to happen as it normally should—whether spectacular or secretive—in spite of everything we do to the contrary.

To learn how Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary works to keep the Platte River healthy for the benefit of whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, and countless other species, visit their website and consider seeing it for yourself next year.  

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