Don't Miss the Whooping Crane Migration

The annual whooping crane migration through Nebraska happens a bit later than the massive sandhill crane migration — right now, in fact.


| April 2015



Whooping crane

The overall worldwide population of whooping cranes is roughly 600 birds; of these, about 273 are estimated in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, which migrates through Nebraska.


Illustration courtesy the University of Nebraska Press

The tallgrass prairie of North America is a unique environment, harsh and delicately balanced by turns, and in Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) Paul A. Johnsgard celebrates the astonishing beauty of the Great Plains. From reflections following a visit to a Pawnee sacred site to meditations on the perils facing the state’s finite natural resources, these essays are the result of a lifetime spent roaming Nebraska’s back roads, trails and sometimes-forgotten places. The following excerpt is from chapter 9, “The Whooping Cranes Are Still Surviving Tough Odds.”

Although many Nebraskans have had the indescribable pleasure of watching tens of thousands of sandhill cranes overhead, or even seeing them roosting on Platte River bars and islands during spring migration, only a tiny handful can say that they have ever seen whooping cranes in Nebraska. The sheer odds against it are daunting. Compared with 450,000–500,000 sandhill cranes migrating through the state each March, there are now less than 300 whooping cranes in the flock that annually migrates from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on Texas’s Gulf Coast, to Wood Buffalo National Park, straddling the border of Alberta and Canada’s Northwest Territories. In addition to this numerical population disparity, whooping cranes migrate somewhat later in spring than the sandhills (during April in Nebraska), after most crane-watchers have gone home. During daytime foraging they also usually frequent rather remote wetlands far from any roads, and they generally move in small groups—a pair or a family or extended family that often consists of a pair and one or more generations of their offspring.

I have spent over fifty years studying, thinking, and writing about cranes and have observed cranes from Alaska to Arizona annually since 1961. My younger colleague, Dr. Karine Gil-Weir, engaged in full-time research on crane longevity, familial relationships, and migratory traditions in Texas and Nebraska from 2002 to 2011. Our devotion to these birds might be considered obsessive-compulsive behavior by many, but the sights and sounds of wild cranes are as intoxicating to us as the odors of tropical wildflowers. To be able to experience them only once would be as painful as being condemned to observe only a single sunset during one’s lifetime.

A lifelong attraction to cranes among many people means that we now know as much about the lives of sandhill and whooping cranes as we do about almost any other North American bird. In 1941 only twenty-two whooping cranes existed in the wild (sixteen in Texas and six in coastal Louisiana). The Louisiana population was extirpated in 1949. It was not until 1954 that their Canadian breeding grounds were discovered (serendipitously, they are located in a remote subarctic area that had already been preserved, as Wood Buffalo National Park), and it was not until 1986 that the world population reached one hundred individuals. The whooping crane was listed as a nationally endangered species in 1972, which made available federal funding for research and for developing a survival strategy, although a wildlife refuge (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge) had been established to protect their wintering grounds almost a half century previously.

Tracking Whooping Crane Migration Patterns

It is an ironic fact that the whooping crane’s perilous population status has protected the Platte River from destruction by powerful irrigation interests, through the identification of the central Platte Valley as a critical habitat for the species. The threat of the extinction of the whooping crane, along with three other threatened or endangered birds and fish, has helped preserve Platte habitats for many other water-dependent species and set the stage for the enactment of a massive Platte conservation effort in 2006. This plan approved a multimillion-dollar, thirteen-year Platte River Recovery Implementation Program for wetland preservation and restoration in Nebraska, involving the federal government and the three states located in the Platte River drainage.

The central Platte Valley was the first region between Texas and the Canadian border to be federally designated as critical habitat for migrating whooping cranes. Other Great Plains sites that have since been similarly identified as critical habitats include Oklahoma’s Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms State Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, both in Kansas.

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