Sandhill Cranes Roost Along Platte River

The Associated Press
Saturday, April 22, 2006; 11:01 PM

WOOD RIVER, Neb. -- To the human eye, the shallow, muddy Platte River surrounded by razed cornfields and brown pastureland is, at best, austere.

To the half-million sandhill cranes that land along an 80-mile stretch of the river each spring, it's an open space to roost that doesn't offer hiding places to predators. The birds also see plenty of places to feed on scattered corn and insect-rich cow waste.

"They build their reserves here; that's why they hang out here for so long," explained Tim Tunnell, grassland manager for The Nature Conservancy, which partners with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to promote restoration and conservation of the Platte-area grasslands so important to the cranes' existence.

The 3- to 4-foot-tall cranes pack on as much as 20 percent of their body weight by gorging on corn left in the fields from the previous fall's harvest. They use their beaks to flip over cow patties to dine on insects and grubs found underneath them.

"Just like they turned over buffalo patties before cattle were here," said Keanna Leonard, education director of the National Audubon Society's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon.

The light gray, heron-like birds need the extra calories to continue migrating from their winter grounds in the southern United States and Mexico to northern Alaska, Canada and Siberia, where they spend the summer. Once they reach those northern climes, they will nest and hatch their young before venturing back south and beginning the migratory cycle again.

But it's their three- to four-week layover along the river from Lexington to just west of Grand Island that has people from around the world pouring into the Cornhusker state from mid-March through April. Some estimates have around 60,000 people showing up, some of them simply pulling over on the shoulder of Interstate 80 to watch the cranes fly over or share corn. Others set up pre-dawn bird-watching tours in various unheated blinds that are often a half-mile's hike from the nearest road.

There, they wait with binoculars for the birds to take off, careful not to make a sound for fear of spooking the nervous birds.

"It's fascinating to see," Eric Hoff, a seasonal employee for the conservancy who leads sightseeing tours. "I can see why people would wonder what it is about the heart of Nebraska that attracts them."

The cranes' high-pitched squawks are deafening. And many perform a curious dance, jumping and flapping their wings _ intent on attracting the attentions of other birds.

The dance is indicative of a larger one played out as man and crane seek to thrive along the river. In some respects, the two species are good for one another.

The cranes reap the benefits from the advent of agriculture along the river, giving them adequate and easily accessible food. They also get help from organizations like The Crane Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Rowe Sanctuary and others, which work to keep the area attractive to cranes and other wildlife. That includes discing land around the river to prevent trees and other vegetation from growing, which would keep the cranes away.

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