This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the first Migratory Bird Treaty, which the United States signed with Great Britain on behalf of Canada. That treaty and the three that followed — with Japan, Russia and Mexico — form the cornerstones of our efforts to conserve migratory birds, like the Sandhill Crane.
Lots of High Plains residents have experience with the Sandhill Crane, a bird that departs its Texas and New Mexico wintering grounds late in the winter for its yearly trip to Canada, Alaska and even Siberia to reproduce, one chick per year. Hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes make a rest stop on the Platte River in central Nebraska to feast on waste grain and invertebrates in order to pack on the fat to provide the energy to complete the trip. The Sandhill crane is a large, gray and rust-colored bird, with a long neck and long legs, which looks ancient. This bird looks like it might have memories of dinosaurs.
“When I was growing up, we called them pterodactyls.” Jude Smith manages Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge near Muleshoe in west Texas. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes winter there.
These birds are, in fact, very ancient, according to Gary Krapu, a research biologist who’s spent a lifetime studying these birds. “The record from fossils suggest that the species may not have changed much in the last one to two million years, so they are one of the oldest birds we have around.”
Krapu has studied this bird from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center at Jamestown, North Dakota. “They’ve been remarkably successful as a species, and part of this is due to the fact that they are extremely wary. They’ve adapted relatively well to agriculture; in fact, a good part of their food while they’re in migration and on the wintering grounds is from waste grains.”
Often when we talk about bird populations, it’s a depressing story of a species in decline, or endangered like the larger, white Whooping Crane, which numbered only 279 in the wild, when surveyed in December 2012. But the Sandhill Crane, this is a different story.
“After the Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1918, banning the spring shooting, it took them quite a while to get going, but starting about mid-twentieth century their numbers have been increasing.” And now that is something, because Sandhill Cranes produce one chick per year — and that’s in a good year. “Given a long span of time, their numbers have come up markedly.”
The Sandhill Crane is an omnivore. They will eat anything. This guy will wander the fields, eating anything not nailed down — frogs, insects, rodents and grasshoppers. And, they really don’t have any predators. “Cranes have successfully killed coyotes by putting their mandibles through and eye socket. They are not a bird to mess with.”
The Crane is a bird of open grasslands, meadows, and wetlands. It congregates in huge numbers in migration. In October, hopefully having been successful at reproducing in the northern latitudes, they’ll begin their journey to their wintering grounds — like Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. “We’ll get a peak typically around the end of December, beginning of January, of around 100,000 Sandhill Cranes.”
Grady Grissom operates Largo Ranch east of Walsenburg, Colorado. A few years ago, he rehabbed a 30-acre playa on his ranch, and now — when it contains water — cranes love to stop by. “There was over a 100 cranes that came in. During the day they’d go out in the pasture and spread out over several thousand acres and eat grasshoppers.”
Thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, in Ithaca New York, for the featured bird song. Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: March 2016