A Great Migration: Sandhill Cranes and Their Very Small Plot of Land

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 25, 2014 12

Sandhill cranes represent one of the Earth’s Great Migrations. ©John T. Andrews

As I was driving home from the YMCA yesterday, I saw two sandhill cranes near a small pond that sits along the highway, only about a half-mile from my house. They were my first sandhill crane sightings of 2014.

But those two birds are also representatives of one of the Earth’s Great Migrations—a natural phenomenon we usually only associate with the African continent. We often forget that at the end of March, one of the planet’s most extraordinary migrations takes place right here in the United States. Five hundred thousand sandhill cranes head to Nebraska, to a site along the central Platte River. Unfortunately, the area of convergence has shrunk to a strip of land only about 80 miles long.

If rapid climate change, increasing human population pressure and invasive species continue to influence this tiny plot, will our cranes be able to adapt, or will we, in our lifetimes, lose yet another natural wonder?

Eighty miles on the brink of extinction

Cranes have been around since the Eocene. ©John T. Andrews

Among the world’s oldest living birds, cranes have been around since the Eocene, which ended 34 million years ago. They are one of the world’s most successful life forms, outlasting millions of species (99 percent of the species that have ever existed are now extinct). The particularly successful sandhill crane of North America—the most abundant crane species—has not changed appreciably in 10 million years.

Not only have sandhill cranes been around for quite some time, their migration has a long history. According to the fossil record, it’s been going on for millions of years.

Today, the Platte River Valley is the most important stopover on the sandhills’ long migration north from places such as Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas or Mexico. The region is so vital to birds that it has been designated an Important Bird Area of Global Significance. Every year, 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the river, to fatten up in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This staging takes place in three waves of four to five weeks each, beginning in mid-February and ending in mid-April—peaking in the last week of March—during which birds that arrive emaciated from wintering grounds gain 20 percent of their body weight.

But whether the cranes will survive our rapidly changing climate and land development remains to be seen. Some say the Platte is almost dead and that the whole environment has been manipulated beyond restoration. The river has lost 80 percent of its width and 70 percent of its flow to hundreds of diversions—including eight major dams on the North Platte and 20 on the South Platte—that siphon it off for municipal and agricultural use. Fifty miles of crane staging habitat have been lost to dams and “reclamation”; only the 80 miles from Overton to Chapman remain.

Invasive wetland plant species, such as common reed and purple loosestrife, have also made negative impacts on the Platte River. In recent years, they have been encroaching on riverbanks and anchoring sandbars on the central Platte River, causing drastic changes in the river’s hydrology and surrounding habitats. When common reed and purple loosestrife start to invade, plant diversity is reduced until an eventual monoculture exists. The number of bird species found in invaded riparian areas and wetlands decrease due to the limited plant diversity and alteration of the river’s natural processes.

In addition, rapid climate change is melting the glaciers in the Rockies where the Platte rises. In 2012, the tornado season arrived three months early; in March there was a cluster of monster tornadoes only a hundred miles west of the staging. In l990, a flock of sandhill cranes was killed by a twister.

Wetlands are succumbing to invasive plant species, decreasing bird diversity. ©John T. Andrews

A bird that has stood the test of time

Others believe, however, that despite us, the sandhill crane staging on the Platte will continue long into the future. Sandhill cranes are highly adaptable—they wouldn’t have lasted for millennia if they weren’t. As the Platte changes, so will the birds’ habits. After all, sandhill crane population numbers have been stable for the last 10 to 15 years.

Many Native American nations had Crane Clans, including those in my home state of Wisconsin. To the Menominee, the Crane is a guardian bird, keeper of knowledge and science.

Perhaps we could learn to be better guardians from the cranes—especially when it comes to protecting that tiny strip of land that they depend on.

Do you think common birds, such as sandhill cranes, will feel the effects of climate change? Or are such adaptable species well equipped for the future?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Shinan Earnshaw March 29, 2014 at 6:56 pm - Reply

    I lived for many years near the Malheur wildlife refuge, an immense area of seasonal marshes, ponds and lakes in Eastern Oregon. The refuge is on the flyway for many migrating birds. The Sandhill cranes were frequently there on their migrations. If the climate change continues, the marshes, lakes and ponds will disappear–and so will the cranes. They need large areas of marsh, pond and waterways–and the grasses and reeds that grow in these areas. The area has long been drying up as it is basically a desert area, subject to periodic droughts and overuse of water for stock and irrigation, and very dependent upon regular rainfall to renew the water.
    Native Americans have finally had victory in the fight to preserve Klamath Lake in Northern California and Southern Oregon. This area is another on the flyway and has been losing water over the last 20 years. Local big agriculture wants the water for irrigation and also to be able to flood the lake and Klamath River with pesticides. They have lost–temporarily–but with further drought, they are going to be pushing for that water again. The US–and other places on the planet–has already lost many species to drought and climate change. The Sandhill crane may be the next victim of human beings’ carelessness, stupidity and greed.

  2. Prof.Dr.Gul Muhammad Ph.D.(London) FRGS March 27, 2014 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    Very informative reminding us crane migration from Siberia to North West Frontier of Pakistan where I live.Their seasonal presence in the area is a flourishing business of few families catching and selling in interior of the country as a beautiful bird for their spacious lawns.It is also considered to be a bird of fortune for who so ever believe in such myths.

  3. Joe Springer March 27, 2014 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    I live in Kearney, Nebraska — the heart of the Sandhill Crane migration stop-over. What I have seen happening over the 35 years that I have lived here is that the cranes begin coming back earlier: late January and early February. With the 50 mph south winds we had yesterday, many continued on north.

    Those that head for Siberia will be fine. Those headed for Hudson’s Bay might be heading into more winter. Climate change doesn’t necessarily mean WARMING. Overall, the earth is warmer. But there are places that have become cooler, or wetter, or drier. The climate is changing. The northeast has been experiencing unusual cold this year.

  4. Edie Smith March 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Hello Candice–The Sandhill Cranes seem to be thriving around my St. John’s River retreat in DeLand. I am located right on the main channel and the lovely cranes gather along the banks, fight over the fish scraps tossed to them by the fishermen cleaning their catch. I love it when they “sit down” on their spindly legs…and when they fly off, the black undersides of their great wings are a sight to see!

  5. Dean S. BARRON March 27, 2014 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I know that some bird researchers have shown that temperature changes other than just increases, such as reduced range, are also challenges that impact migration and population.

  6. Donna Guy March 27, 2014 at 4:27 am - Reply

    Great article–the sheer numbers of the birds is astounding!

    The bird with the name that makes schoolboys howl with laughter, the great tit (parus major), times its breeding to the hatching of winter moth caterpillars. There is a 24-day window in early spring when the caterpillar emerges to dine on freshly sprouted oak leaves; after that period the leaves produce too much tannin so the caterpillar moves on to the pupae stage. The birds take advantage of this abundance of caterpillars and time their breeding accordingly (hatchlings 21 days after breeding). Now that spring comes earlier the birds have not compensated by breeding earlier and many hatchlings starve. However, according to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology overall numbers of great tits have not decreased. The increase in hatchling mortality has apparently been offset by higher survival rates of juveniles. The research was published in Science (26 April 2013: 412-413.[DOI:10.1126/science.340.6131.412-a].)
    Why wouldn’t, at some point, the overall population decrease since less hatchlings equals less juveniles eventually? The NUST study is over a 40 year period.

  7. Carl Knauer March 27, 2014 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Candice, I grew up in Southern Michigan and have vivid memories of these impressive birds. Before I can ponder whether Climate Change will have any effect on the cranes, I will require someone to explain to me what Climate Change means. My lack of understanding regarding what Climate Change means may well say more about me than those who are screaming it from the mountain top. It is difficult to listen to someone who is screaming at me for not believing in it, regardless of whether I understand it or not. (Of course I am not referring to you as the screamer, Candice.) For such a large bird to survive extinction for millions of years with all of the epic changes in climate that must have occurred over that time span, I would think that , as a species, they can find a way to withstand whatever is thrown at them. I am looking forward to a productive and respectful discussion with you as always.

  8. Neil Marshall March 27, 2014 at 4:24 am - Reply

    Sandhill cranes are most adaptable. When and if it comes to it, even if the whole southwest and central US becomes more desert like, parts of the migration will still find new areas of interest. Hunger is a powerful motivator.

    Regarding Thomas’ lack of clarity regarding global warming, I too was a skeptic, however eight or ten years ago I learned that all of the glaciers in the world were retreating except one, I became convinced that something was indeed going on. What better indicator could one want. If some here were, over a period of time, retreating but others elsewhere were not that would be normal under general global variable conditions. A couple of cold years here and a couple of hot years over there would be normal within normal climate conditions. But when they are all getting together that’s something else! The ice cap on Mt Kilimanjaro has disappeared. First time in known history. Permafrost melting in the arctic is exposing lots of mammoths never exposed before. There is a gem stone mining stampede in Greenland because lots of areas never exposed have opened up. Its time to get on the wagon and start to preserve organisms that are not as mobile as Cranes.

  9. Thomas Hodges March 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed your article. I did not realize there were so many of these cranes passing through the U.S. I grew up hunting Geese and these magnificent birds were always part of our experience. You mention climate change and I am not convinced that there is such a thing. But I am sure that as these birds have withstood many other challenging scenarios though out their existence they will undoubtedly overcome the ones facing them now.

  10. Vitrell L. McNair-Sherif March 26, 2014 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    That is a great question Candice! One I hope to see great informative answers to. A loss none of us are willing to accept. Thanks for asking. I am leaning towards the hope that given they are a hardy bird, that has adapted well to our changes over time… perhaps with proper attention and protection they will make it through just fine. Informative information to the public, and academia promoting as it is that climate change is indeed a fact, and changing our globe at an exponential rate, will surely have some form of impact. I am not an expert on the bird, however, an avid admirer.

  11. Larry Ehemann March 26, 2014 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Very important article Candice and great photos.

  12. Sage March 26, 2014 at 7:34 am - Reply

    Thanks for teaching me more about these unique and beautiful birds.

    This time of the year, I’ve only seen sandhills in pairs, but in the fall we get great groups of Sandhills that move through West Michigan. Here is a story about one of their gathering places a they move south: https://sagecoveredhills.blogspot.com/2011/10/saturdays-symphony-featuring-sandhill.html

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