500,000 Cranes Are Headed for Nebraska in One of Earth’s Greatest Migrations

At the end of March, 80 percent of the world’s cranes will converge upon one 80-mile stretch of land

(Melissa Groo)
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Allison Hedge Coke, a poet of Cherokee, Huron, métis and European descent, has been doing fascinating research on Native American crane clans. They were responsible for keeping the history of the people. The hieroglyphs you see at Petroglyph National Monument, for instance, across the Rio Grande from Albuquerque, look like chicken-scratch, but they are actually crane-scratch. The Hopi had a crane clan; the Mojave and Anishinaabe-Ojibwe still do.

In the evening I go out to the Nature Conservancy’s blind, upstream from the Alda Bridge, with Hedge Coke and a tall, regal Omaha poet named Renee Sans Souci and her four kids. Hedge Coke tells us to cover our heads and to walk in a weaving line, which she does and we fall in behind her, so as to be respectful and not spook the cranes. Soon we are in a non-European ritual space, doing our own dance. This is the native way, how the children are taught to honor the cranes.

A lot of the old crane knowledge and animism have been lost, casualties of Manifest Destiny and the European colonizers’ imposing their religion. Hedge Coke calls herself a cultural reclamationist. “The Pawnee lived on the Platte but were forced to move down to Oklahoma in the years following the Homestead Act. The Pawnee in this region had secret societies connected with the belief in supernatural animals. I am trying to find out their insights into the cranes.”

Much of the native dancing in the flyway is inspired by cranes. The Choctaw wear a white crane feather on their baseball caps to indicate ability. The Lakota wear a red adornment called a pesa that is like the forehead of a sandhill. Cranes are guardian birds, keepers of knowledge all over the world, and this is the epicenter.

“Listen,” she whispers, “a location call. The cranes behind the cottonwoods across the river are calling to their scout, Where are you?, asking if they can approach, and now the scout is going to give the OK call, and the cranes are going to start coming in.” The arrival is carried out with military precision. Once the all-clear has been given, groups start flying in from every direction and floating down on the sandbar on gossamer wings until there are so many we can’t even see the sand anymore.

Karine Gil-Weir told me, “This gathering is getting more problematic every year because of climate change, extreme weather, competition with snow geese and drought in the south.” This year 5,000 sandhills did not return to their wintering grounds but hunkered down on Mormon Island, on the Crane Trust’s property. If the drought and heat waves in the heartland continue, more will undoubtedly join them. But will the midcontinental sandhills become totally residential on the Platte like the Florida and Mississippi sandhills, or like the Canada geese, 60 percent of which no longer migrate? Archibald doesn’t think so. There’s not enough shallow wetlands on the Platte for them to breed in, and global warming is also increasing the length of time they can stay at their nesting grounds in the north from the 40 to 50 days they have to grow their fist-size chicks to full-size, flight-ready birds (one of the fastest growth spurts in the animal kingdom) and is giving their breeding season more flexibility. Archibald thinks sandhills are starting to stay on the Platte because of conditions being better in the north. “All over the world birds that used to winter farther south are wintering farther north due to global warming. Eurasian cranes that used to winter in Spain now winter in the north of France. These central-flyway sandhills will still have to go north because they need aquatic food with proper protein to raise young. And once fields are plowed and replanted in the spring, the ones that stay are going to be in trouble,” Archibald said. “I think the staging on the Platte will continue. However the Platte is almost dead. The whole environment is manipulated. But the sandhills seem to be doing fine. Their population has been stable for the last 10 to 15 years.”

And how many things can that be said about? But global warming is also melting the glaciers in the Rockies where the Platte rises, and in 2012 the tornado season arrived three months early; in March there was a cluster of monster tornadoes only 100 miles west of the staging. In l990 a flock was shredded by a twister into what looked to one witness like “bits of newsprint.” But the cranes are highly adaptable. They wouldn’t have lasted this long if they weren’t. I imagine they will learn to give tornadoes an even wider berth than they do humans, if they haven’t already.

About Alex Shoumatoff
Alex Shoumatoff

Alex's Shoumatoff is the author of 11 books, most recently The Wasting of Borneo: Dispatches From a Vanishing World (Beacon Press, April 2017). He is developing a documentary series called Suitcase on the Loose, which, like his website, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, is dedicated to making people care about the planet's rapidly disappearing biological and cultural diversity.

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