See the Sandhill Crane Migration March 2-April 7, 2013

Audubon Sanctuary in Nebraska Has Ideal Set-Up for Viewing

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane (usfws)

Kearney, NE–(ENEWSPF)–February 21, 2013. Each spring over a half million sandhill cranes congregate on Nebraska’s Platte River. Like the migration of wildebeest in Africa and the march of the penguins in Antarctica, the seasonal movement of these graceful birds is a spectacular nature show.  Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney helps people witness this phenomenon.  From March 2-April 7, the Audubon Sanctuary has daily crane viewing trips hosted by expert guides.  Avid photographers can book photography blinds for close-ups of the cranes. 

David Yarnold, President and CEO of the National Audubon Society, said on his first visit to Kearney:  “This is an amazing life experience. I think everyone comes away humbled. It really puts life into perspective, and helps people understand how important it is to protect natural places for generations to come.”

“Though they face an increasing number of threats from human activities, their age-old migration continues to be a most amazing phenomenon, wrote Dr. Jane Goodall; “To ensure that sandhill cranes continue to thrive, we must work harder than ever to preserve the Platte River….” 

The Platte River Valley is the most important stopover on the cranes’ long migration north from Texas, Oklahoma or Mexico.  The region is so vital it has been designated an Important Bird Area of global significance. 

Beyond the photogenic spectacle, the sound of the crane inspired naturalist Aldo Leopold to write “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” With a trachea shaped like a saxophone, sandhill cranes emit a fantastic melodic chorus that carries for over a mile. Their courtship display is a dance of hops, leaps and bows. 

“It is an amazing sight to see and hear,” said Bill Taddicken, Director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. “But the annual return of Sandhill cranes depends on all of us, protecting the environment we share with these great birds, up and down their flyway.” 

Wetlands along the Platte River have been adversely affected by dams and drought, but the Audubon team works year round to restore this key destination for 10 million migrating birds, which also includes snow geese, hooded mergansers and whooping cranes. 

Events include sunset and sunrise visits to blinds along the Platte River.  

These guided tours are about two hours long and the fee is $25/person.  Reservations are recommended: tel 308-468-5282 or online at

Additional programs March 2 – April 7

Cranes 101 (daily at 9 a.m. & 2 p.m.) – Introductory program on sandhill cranes and the spring migration.

Crane Behavior Workshop (Saturdays) – An in depth look at crane behavior. 

43rd Annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration, March 21-24 – Activities include guided field trips to see the cranes and other wildlife, live raptor and reptile presentations, and local and national speakers presenting on a variety of wildlife and conservation topics.  Keynote speakers include author, wildlife biologist and falconer Dan O’Brien and Noppadol Paothong,  photographer for   the book “Saving the Last Dance, A Story of North American Grassland Grouse.” 

Register at or call Audubon Nebraska at 402-797-2301.

Family Crane Carnival, March 30, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Everything you want to know about cranes in a fun, family atmosphere. 

For more information

Backgrounder: See this Audubon magazine report by Jonathan Rosen on the migration

See video


Crane Fact Sheet

Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. Fossil records place cranes in Nebraska more than nine million years ago, long before there was a Platte River, which by comparison, is a youthful 10,000 years of age.

Height:  3 to 4 feet
Weight:  6 to 12 pounds
Wingspan:  6 to 7 feet
Lifespan:  20 to 40 years

Diet:  Cranes are omnivorous and their diet varies depending on the season and where they are.  The cranes that visit the Platte River valley feed primarily on grain left in corn fields, which makes up 90% of their diet while here.  The other 10% comes from plant and animal foods found in wet meadows adjacent to the river.  Seeds, fleshy tubers of plants, grubs, earth worms, snails, amphibians, small reptiles and rodents are all fair game.

Color:  Adult is gray with a red crown (bald patch of skin); juvenile is browner overall and has a feathered crown.
Subspecies:  There are at least five subspecies of sandhill cranes, possibly six depending on who you ask.  Migratory subspecies include the lesser, greater, and according to some, the Canadian sandhill crane.  Non-migratory subspecies are the Florida, Mississippi and Cuban sandhill crane.

Flight speed & distance:  25 – 35 mph; cranes typically travel 200 – 300 miles in a day, but can travel  500 miles with a good tail wind. When southerly winds start to blow in late March and early April along the Platte, you will see cranes testing these winds for flight conditions.   Cranes ride thermals so efficiently that sandhill cranes have been seen over Mt. McKinley, and Siberian Cranes over Mt. Everest (~28,000 feet).

Nesting:  For migratory populations, nesting begins early April to late May.  Nests are usually low mounds of vegetation located in wetlands, but are occasionally located in uplands.  The female typically lays two eggs, with incubation lasting 29 – 32 days.

Sandhill Cranes and the Platte River

Sandhill cranes have been found as far north as Alaska and Eastern Siberia. In order to reach these destinations, cranes must build up enough energy to complete their long journey, and to begin breeding. The Platte River provides the perfect spot to rest, and the nearby farmlands and wet meadows offer an abundance of food. Without the energy gained along the Platte, cranes might arrive at their breeding grounds in a weakened condition — where food may be limited until the spring growing season begins.

The Platte River region has a variety of habitats that support cranes. The most important is the Platte River itself. The river is very shallow and sandbars dot the channels. It is here the cranes rest at night, gaining protection from predators like coyotes.

In the morning, cranes shuffle up and down the river waiting for the sun topop up over the horizon. As the sun rises, cranes head out to feed and loaf in the surrounding fields.  During the day, cranes do their display “dance” to relieve the stress of migration and strengthen pair bonds.  Cranes are very social birds and in the evening, congregate in wet meadows before heading back to the river for the night.


A crane’s bill is very sharp and sturdy, useful when probing frozen soil. The edges are serrated to grasp slippery food. Not only is it used for preening, it is also used as a weapon.

When a crane is threatened, it will use its wings to maintain its balance and then jump up and strike at the attacker with its feet.

Cranes can stay warm while standing in near-freezing water by constricting blood vessels in their feet. Arteries and vessels in their legs are right next to each other so the colder blood is warmed before it reaches the body.


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