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Module 4 • Flora and Fauna: Case Study
Teacher Notes 4-7.1a
Sandhill Cranes
Nebraska’s Spring Ritual
By Miki Meek
Swirling gray masses of sandhill cranes descend on south-central Nebraska each year, heralding the
arrival of spring and the largest gathering of cranes in the world. The Platte River Valley becomes a
six-week pit stop from late February to early April for a half million sandhill cranes journeying north
to their Arctic breeding grounds.
“It’s one of the world’s greatest migration spectacles,” says Paul Tebbel, director of the National
Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska. “Everywhere you look, there are cranes in the air.”
Considered a premiere viewing spot for sandhill cranes, the sanctuary is also the site of National
Geographic’s Crane Cam.
As one of the world’s oldest bird species, these elegant, red-headed birds—also known as Grus
canadensis—have been a part of Nebraska’s landscape for more than nine million years. And for
them, the Platte is the perfect place to take a break during their migration. Lean after traveling from
their winter homes in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico, these omnivorous cranes spend their
days feasting in farm fields and wet meadows surrounding the Platte. Eating insects and waste corn
enables them to pack up to two pounds (one kilogram) on their stately frames, which weigh 6 to12
pounds (3 to 5.5 kilograms) and roughly stand four-feet (one-meter) tall with a six-foot (two-meter)
wingspan. This vital energy reserve helps ensure the cranes’ survival and reproductive success after
they leave the Platte for Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.
Aside from providing precious nutrients, the Platte is also a haven. As the day comes to a close, thou-
sands of cranes return from the fields to seek refuge in the middle of the wide, shallow Platte River.
From its submerged sandbars, the cranes have a 360-degree view while they roost, which helps them
keep an eye out for approaching predators such as coyotes and eagles.
Once these birds roosted and fed along 200 miles (320 kilometers) of the Platte River. Today’s habitat
covers only 80 miles (130 kilometers)—the minimum biologists believe necessary to sustain the birds’
awesome migration. Dams, irrigation, development, and power plants have decreased the river’s
once powerful flow by 70 percent, allowing tree and shrub seedlings to settle in and grow over once
prime roosting spots. Further, some 75 percent of the area’s grasslands and nutrient-rich wet mead-
ows near the Platte have been lost to agriculture and gravel mining.
The valley is also a critical migration stop for 20 million other northbound migratory birds, includ-
ing highly endangered species such as the whooping crane, piping plover, and interior least tern. For
several years conservation groups, farmers, and political leaders in Nebraska have been working on
setting aside water for these birds and increasing their already preserved habitat from 14,000 acres
(5,650 hectares) to 29,000 acres (11,750 hectares). In the near future they hope U.S. Secretary of the
Interior, Gale Norton, and the governors of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado—whose states use the
Platte’s water—will sign an agreement to ratify the increase.
Despite this habitat loss, sandhill cranes are thriving as the most abundant of the world’s 15 crane
species, with nine currently endangered. National Geographic wildlife photographer Joel Sartore,
a native Nebraskan who has been going to the Platte on and off for the past 20 years, hopes the
cranes will keep flourishing.
“Once you’ve gone to the Platte, you’ll want to keep going throughout your life,” he says. “Whether
you’re taking pictures or not, it’s just a great place to be.”
This article courtesy of http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/cranecam/about.html
PolarHusky.com
© NOMADS Online Classroom Expeditions GoNorth! Chukotka 2007 Curriculum 64
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