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Cranes Cross the Great Plains
Quivera National Wildlife Refuge, Stafford, Kansas

October 20, 1997
"Two days ago there were 13 cranes here. Now there are over 7,800. They are literally dropping out of the sky into fields and marshes. Their bugling cries can be heard for miles and they have only just begun to arrive," reported Quivera National Wildlife Refuge Manager Dave Hilley last Friday as the Sandhill Cranes arrived in Kansas.

These Sandhill Cranes are now passing through from their nesting grounds, some having traveled all the way from eastern Siberia! Quivera National Wildlife Refuge is located in central Kansas in the heart of North America's bread basket. Every spring and fall, huge numbers of Sandhill Cranes, ducks, geese, hawks, and songbirds parade across the Great Plains to and from breeding and wintering grounds. The Sandhill Cranes are headed to Texas, New Mexico, and Central and Northern Mexico. The migration route of some will have spanned 4 countries. Along the way, they stop down in farmers fields, rivers, and wetlands to rest, refuel, and gather energy for their long flight.

In Good Company
Adult Sandhill Cranes migrate with their young. Waves and waves of family groups begin arriving at Quivera in mid-October. Their numbers continue to build throughout the fall as more and more cranes arrive. They will stay at the refuge long enough to allow time for the young to fatten up and grow strong. While most will move on in mid- to late-November, some Cranes will stay until the marshes freeze and force them to head south.

Whooping Crane
Migration Route

Sandhill Cranes are not the only birds that come to Quivera. Last year, a total of 40 Whooping Cranes were seen at Quivera as they moved through to their wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Since there are fewer than 160 Whooping Cranes in the entire wild population, this means over 1/4 of the population uses the Quivera area during migration!

The first Whooping Cranes were reported to the north and west of Quivera last Thursday, October 16. As of today, 5 Whoopers (a family group of two adults and one juvenile, along with two other adults ) have just moved through. The rest of the Whoopers are currently to the north, in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Whooping Cranes like to migrate with the north winds. The next strong northerly, which Dave Hilley predicts will be sometime later this week, will most likely bring them through Quivera.

Link to weather map showing approaching cold front.

Fly With the Cranes!

Last Monday, October 13, four Whooping Cranes and eight Sandhill Cranes began their first migration south for the winter, led by Kent Clegg in his Dragonfly ultralight airplane. Whooping Crane specialist Tom Stehn, who writes for Journey North each spring, is along for the ride and is cheering them on. The Cranes and their human companions are now somewhere between Idaho and New Mexico, their final destination. You can follow the migration live as the cranes learn to migrate by visiting the:

Whooping Crane Migration
WWW site

Imagine the voice of a crane describing its daily trip! Kent's nightly updates are the next best thing, and you'll also find pictures of the Cranes in flight, taken on the same day.

  • Where do the Dranes sleep each night so they'll be safe from predators?
  • Why did the Cranes crowd around the plane in fear on Friday the 17th?
  • How many miles have the Cranes flown each day?
  • When do you think they will reach their destination?
Numbers of the Rise
In recent years, biologists have become concerned about loss of wetland and river habitat on Sandhill Cranes. Decades of draining and dredging rivers and filling marshes for agriculture have reduced the amount of wetlands which once provided important habitat and food for cranes. However, despite the loss of wetlands in the Midwest, the number of Sandhill Cranes reported at Quivera has steadily increased. Nine years ago, when manager Dave Hilley first started working at Quivera, approximately 20,000 Sandhill cranes were sited. Last fall, over 87,000 Sandhill cranes were reported! Why do you think the population of Sandhill Cranes migrating through Quivera has actually increased during a time when much important wetland habitat has been lost?

This may be a case in which man's impacts on nature could actually be helping the Sandhill Cranes. Well before settlers moved to the Midwest, the Sandhill Cranes, Whooping Cranes, and many species of waterfowl would stop down in the wetlands, marshes, and prairie to feed on tubers, crayfish, small frogs, and insect larvae. Now, these areas have mostly been taken over by agriculture fields in which farmers plant milo, corn, and winter wheat. When farmers finish their harvest, much of the crop is left in the fields as waste. Just as farmers are completing their harvest, the Sandhill Cranes come through by the thousands to feed on the corn and milo left in the fields. Milo and corn is sometimes called "hot food" because it provides a quick source of energy for the cranes, like a bowl of hot oatmeal.

Cranes and Farmers in Partnership
A harvest of plenty for farmers and cranes, Quivera has become such an important stopover site for Sandhill Cranes, Whooping Cranes and other waterfowl, the refuge has started programs to help local farmers help the birds. A small number of farmers can lease land on the refuge to farm. In exchange for the opportunity to farm, the farmers harvest only 2/3rds of their crops and leave 1/3 in the field for the cranes. In this creative partnership, both the cranes and the farmers benefit from use of the refuge.

The Next Journey South Update Will be Posted on October 20, 1997.