Rabbitbrush Rambler: Return of the cranes

Enjoy! Migrating Sandhill Cranes started to arrive a month ago and now are here en masse. They have been arriving earlier each year lately to herald the news that the parade is ready to begin in the Valley, and some will be staying for a month or so.

We usually hear the first gronkings and gurglings before we see any. Then we see some high above in the sky, and next a few descend, coming in for a gentle landing, just so, with their stick-like legs reaching down to terra firma in a field or in a wetland.

Each year I look forward to the sight of cranes on the move, drawn northward as if by a magnet to nest. A few months later, they straggle southward on their own schedules after the breeding season has ended.

For many of ours, the one-way journey covers about 2,000 miles, an easier journey compared to some others who travel all the way from Central America to Siberia. The destination for many of our own Sandhill Cranes is from New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico to southeastern Idaho.

I wonder how the leaders of the crowd know the route. Do the youngsters learn it from their parents and other adults? Are landmarks remembered along the way? Does a compass in their brains direct them reliably from the Start Line to the Finish Line? If only the cranes could tell us.

Belonging to 15 different species with different feathered décor and genes, members of the Gruidae Family are found on five continents, but some of the species are dwindling. How well we recall the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s experimental program that resulted in our seeing some rare, white Whooping Cranes here in the Valley that were on the verge of disappearing forever.

The total number of Whooping Cranes had shrunk to 16 when USFS undertook its program to save this endangered species by moving Whoopers’ eggs and letting wild Sandhills hatch Whoopers’ eggs. The largest number of Whoopers I myself counted here in the Valley one year was 32 before USFS changed its experimental program to a different location in the East with greater promise of success.

Some still get shot by ignorant hunters and some die from other causes like utility lines and predators, so we still do not have what can be called a viable population of Whooping Cranes. With about 600 in existence now, about half of the existing Whooping Cranes are in captivity and about half are flying free.   

Sandhill Cranes, however, are doing well, with worldwide numbers actually increasing. Here in the Valley there may be roughly 25,000 Sandhills during spring migration, lured by benefits such as open fields with farms and conservation programs that provide suitable habitat and food. Natural attractions without the help of humans have existed here since prehistoric times.

Around the world, conditions are changing, though. Climate change has been occurring, as scientists inform us with good evidence, whether or not everyone has acknowledged it.

A significant portion is associated with human activities. While human population grows and competes for habitat and resources, wild species like the cranes have a harder time surviving.

But we also have reasons to be happy, an important plus being that the cranes encourage us to get outdoors after too many weeks of hunkering indoors. And the more that people care about what is happening to wildlife, the greater are their chances of its receiving help from wildlife programs.

When we get out to enjoy the cranes, we see old friends and school kids at our three wildlife refuges and at events where we learn about wildlife, like at Monte Vista’s Crane Festival taking place next weekend. We chat with friends and with ecotourists from faraway who also are enjoying the spectacle of the dancing cranes (and have brought some green stuff with them). That’s very good news.


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