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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Migration of Cranes

Air Date: Week of

One of the oldest rites of Spring is the migration of cranes from their southern wintering grounds to nesting areas in the north. America's largest population of Sandhill Cranes migrates up the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Montana, and on the way they take a long break in southern California's San Luis Valley where they rest, feed and court before continuing their journey. Becky Rumsey took in the sight at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and sent us this report.


CURWOOD: Some of the oldest rites of spring include the mating dances and migrations of cranes. One of the most traveled routes for the endangered whooping crane and its more populous cousin, the sandhill crane, is up the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Montana. A favorite rest stop along the way is Southern California's San Luis Valley, where the cranes feed and court before continuing their journey. Becky Rumsey took in this site at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and sent us this report.

(Crane calls)

SCHNADERBECK: And just watch some of these from up real high. They'll be a half a mile away; they'll just lock their wings and they won't flap a beat. Isn't that neat? I can just sit and watch those birds land like that all day long.

(Crane calls continue)

RUMSEY: As assistant manager of the 14,000-acre Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Rick Schnaderbeck doesn't usually have time to sit and watch sandhill cranes. But when he does, he's clearly thrilled by these stately birds that stand 4 feet tall and have a wing span of 2 yards. Sandhill cranes are gray. They have red crowns and long bills, and they've come to the San Luis Valley to eat.

SCHNADERBECK: They're actually going through like, oh, what good marathon runners do. They carbohydrate-load before a big event. That's what those birds are doing here now.

(Air thick with crane calls)

RUMSEY: Decades ago, hungry cranes were a problem for farmers in the San Luis Valley. So in 1953, the Federal Government created the Monte Vista Refuge to help alleviate crop losses. Today the situation's almost reversed. The refuge produces about 40% of the barley and wheat the cranes depend on, and it actively works with surrounding land owners who make up the difference. Many of them try to leave as much waste grain in their fields as possible for the birds.

SCHADERBECK: The whole San Luis Valley kind of functions as one ecosystem. And both -- that's why these refuges just seem to fit so well into this agricultural community.

RUMSEY: Agricultural development once dried up a lot of the valley's natural springs and wetlands. So the Refuge recreates water fowl habitat by pumping ground water and running it through an elaborate system of dikes, ditches, and shallow ponds. Biologists say it's efforts like these that have enabled this population of greater sandhills to rebound from 500 birds earlier in the century to about 20,000 today. Because of its wetlands and plentiful food supplies, the cranes stay in the San Luis Valley longer and are more concentrated here than anywhere else on the migration route.

(Running water; fade to bus engine and woman: "Hi, I'm Margie. I am your driver today. We're going to be flying low enough for you to see the birds, the bees, and other assorted things. Maybe we'll run into an elk or two.")

RUMSEY: Marge Simmering's been driving bus tours for the Monte Vista Crane Festival since it began 14 years ago. It's a volunteer-run event that draws thousands of bird lovers to this small Colorado town. The people on this bus have come to watch sandhill cranes leap and dance in ritual courtship. They've also come for a glimpse of another kind of crane. Three whooping cranes are part of this sandhill flock. It's easy to pick them out. They're a brilliant white, with full red and black face masks. And when they show their wing tips, you can see 9 strikingly black primary feathers.

(Man: "The second one is further north about a hundred yards from this one." Second man, "Oh, yeah.")

RUMSEY: These whooping cranes are the only survivors of an experiment. In 1975, as part of a recovery plan for the endangered whoopers, Federal biologists began placing whooping crane eggs with wild sandhill parents. They hoped the sandhills would raise the whoopers as their own and teach them to migrate, which they did. The problem was that when it came time to make, the whoopers were more attracted to the sandhills than to each other. In 1988 the program was discontinued, but other recovery efforts have been able to bring the whooping crane population back from just 16 birds in the 1940s to more than 300 today. The whooping crane is still endangered, but it's become a national symbol of conservation.

(Ambient voices, camera shutters clicking)

RUMSEY: This year, many Monte Vista visitors will take home photographs of sandhill and whooping cranes, and as it turns out, people have been making pictures of cranes in the San Luis Valley for thousands of years.

(Footfalls, voices)

RUMSEY: On a windy spring day, I join a small group of hikers. We follow US Forest Service archaeologist Ken Frye up a canyon ridge to see an unusual rock art site.

FRYE: The site was discovered in about 1985 by a range technician from the forest who was looking for lost sheep. And he stumbled onto the site.

RUMSEY: The petroglyph we've come to see is on the upper surface of a well-hidden alcove.

FRYE: We think the site is a couple thousand years old by the style of this particular petroglyph.

RUMSEY: It's a large bird in flight. The long arc of its neck incorporates a fine ridge line in the rock. It meets the outstretched wing in a vee. From the tip of the wing, 9 vertical lines fall: a clue that the artist was depicting a whooping crane with its distinctive black primary feathers.

(Crane calls)

RUMSEY: Throughout the world, there's a long history of people honoring cranes in art, dance, or story. Part of our fascination could be that cranes are relics of the Earth's previous incarnations. They're one of the most ancient bird families on the planet, dating back 40 to 60 million years.

(Crane calls continue)

SCHNADERBECK: It's such a primitive call. It's like you want to look over your shoulder and see if there's a dinosaur behind you.

(Crane calls continue)

RUMSEY: Back at the Monte Vista Refuge, Rick Schnaderbeck describes how every spring pairs of sandhills reaffirm their lifelong bond.

SCHNADERBECK: There's probably going to be some dancing straight out. Now, there's 2 of them looking at each other, facing each other. Now they're starting to bounce. If it really gets intense they'll pick up some sticks and throw them in the air and then they'll jump, they'll jump probably 4, 5 feet off the ground.

RUMSEY: The cranes face each other, necks arched, wings agape, and leap. They pirouette, toes pointed down, as if this were some kind of bird ballet. As if the time had come to leave the San Luis Valley and fly on, to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, to build nests and rear their young. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey in Monte Vista, Colorado.



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