Experiencing Nebraska’s Annual Sandhill Crane Migration

The Sandhill Crane Migration gets underway in central Nebraska about Valentine’s Day each year. A noisier gathering there surely is not, with the exception most college basketball arenas in the month of March.Sandhill cranes in a Nebraska cornfield.

After joining bird watchers from around the world, I described the unmistakable sound as a “throaty rat-a-tat-tat, a profoundly deep trill that when amplified by the thousands in the early morning light creates one of those adventures worth getting out of bed for at 5 a.m. and trudging across a frozen cornfield in middle of winter in the middle of Nebraska.”

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600,000 Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

Sandhill cranes gather in the shallow water of the Platte River at sunset in Central nebraska. Like Old Faithful erupting and Niagara Falls cascading, Nebraska’s spring sandhill crane migration is a spectacle of Mother Nature that should not be missed.

From roughly Valentine’s Day to Tax Day, an estimated 600,000 sandhill cranes stop on their way north to feed in the corn fields and roost in the shallow waters of the Platte River valley. That’s about 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes coming through this part of Nebraska.

The migratory path of sandhill cranes

It’s a narrow stretch about 60 miles wide along the river between Grand Island and Kearney. They will spend four to six weeks hanging out here, longer than at any other place on their migratory path.

Central Nebraska’s massive cornfields provide an abundance of space and plenty of food in the left-over waste from harvest. The Platte River provides the water and the shallow banks, protected by marsh grasses, provide a safe place to roost at night.

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Protecting Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes

But Nebraska guarantees one other key factor that no other state in the bird’s migratory path provides – safety.

Sandhill cranes are protected in Nebraska. Hunting them is against the law and the birds have figured out they are safe here. So they stay a while. They sing, they dance, they eat, they make merry. And they draw bird watchers from around the world.

Sunrise in Nebraska over the Platte Rivr where sandhill cranes nest.It’s not absolutely necessary to get out of bed at 5 a.m. to see the sandhill cranes. It’s quite enjoyable watching them all collect in the evening hours after being out feeding all day. But there’s something that happens at that happens in the early morning hours you won’t see any other time of day.

As the sun peaks over the horizon, the birds become more chatty and noisy. Then as if on cue, but none that is visible to the human eye, all of a sudden, the entire mass will lift to the sky. At times, they block out the rising sun, creating thousands of sleek, motion-filled silhouettes.


Where to Watch the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

School children gather to watch the sandhill cranes at sunrise in central Nebraska.Two great places to learn about it all is at the  Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Alda and the Rowe Nature Sanctuary at Gibbon, Nebraska.

The city of Kearney Nebraska hosts a Crane Watch Festival the last week of March that includes guest lectures, art shows, and other special events. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island also offers programs that highlight Nebraska’s participation in this annual spectacle of nature.

It’s a madness in March with which the NCAA cannot compete.

Learn More About Nebraska and Sandhill Cranes