Along the River’s Edge – Witnessing the Sandhill Crane Migration

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At sunset each day, Tom sits near the river’s edge as flock after flock of silhouetted sandhill cranes darken the sky—coming in to roost along the sandbars and shallows of the Platte River. The haunting sounds of thousands of cranes permeating the prairie are beautiful and unforgettable. Instinct brings the cranes back to the river each spring on their annual migration, and this spectacular wildlife display draws Tom back to his childhood home in March, year after year.

Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. Fossils have been found that place cranes in Nebraska more than ten million years ago, long before the Platte River existed. With a wingspan reaching 6-7 feet, sandhill cranes migrate from Texas to as far north as Alaska—flying 25-35 mph and traveling 200-300 miles a day.

The Platte River Valley is the most important stop-over of the crane’s spring migration—as the river provides the perfect spot to rest and safely roost on the sandbars at night. The nearby agricultural fields and wet meadows offer an abundance of food the birds will need to reach their breeding grounds.

The courtship dance of the sandhill crane is one of Tom’s favorite behaviors to observe. In the spring, while roosting or feeding in meadows and fields, cranes elaborately bow with outstretched wings and leap into the air on fluttering wings. These graceful ‘dancing’ displays bond a crane pair for life.

After nearly a month in Nebraska, the cranes grow impatient to continue their northward trek. With the coming of southerly winds, the great flocks of cranes fill the northern sky with ragged, undulating lines of the migration and disappear against blue April skies.

Watch a video of Dr. Jane Goodall talking about Nebraska and the sandhill crane migration.