For the Birds Radio Program: Nebraska

Original Air Date: March 15, 2004

Visiting the Platte River in Nebraska is well worth the effort. (5:12)

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Every year as February turns into March, I start feeling restless, and suddenly find myself yearning to be in Nebraska. Sometime back in February, or even in January in a mild winter, the first Sandhill Cranes had arrived, and by the first week in March their numbers measure in the thousands. Meanwhile, in February the geese started flying in, their migration peaking in late February or early March, their numbers measured in the millions. I’ve seen what looked like a tornado raging over a field that, as it swirled closer and closer, transmogrified into an amazingly huge flock of Snow Geese, a flock of hundreds of thousands. During the daytime, the cranes and geese feed on last year’s waste corn in farm fields, and throughout the day if the wind is right, thousands more cranes arrive as geese depart. Migrating flocks fly high overhead, taking advantage of thermals to carry them along. Sometimes as you watch the tiny specks up in the ozone layer, they suddenly drop down to join the huge flocks in the fields. All day they feed, insatiably building up their fat reserves for the long migration stretch they face before reaching their breeding grounds. As the sun goes down, virtually all the birds converge on the Platte River to sleep relatively safe from predators. Geese are light sleepers, and it’s possible to hear them honking on and off all night long, if you don’t mind giving up a night’s sleep to listen. Once the cranes settle in, their sound is more like a gentle purr. As March proceeds, the purring becomes stronger as more cranes arrive, and the honking grows less and less until by mid-March when the geese are gone and the cranes number in the hundred-thousands, it sounds as if the whole earth is purring.

Unfortunately, Interstate 80 borders the Platte River, and it’s virtually impossible to find a stretch of river where you can’t hear the traffic from I-80. I don’t know of any place a person can go to hear the natural sounds of the cranes and geese without a constant background of traffic, which grows louder and louder as day breaks. And railroad tracks also parallel and crisscross the river here and there, so the roar of train wheels on tracks and long train whistles also punctuate the natural sounds. There are so few spaces one can go to nowadays where we can hear absolutely unadulterated natural sounds.

I like to arrive on the Platte River before five in the morning, when it’s still completely dark, just to listen to the sleeping birds. At the first hint of the eastern sky brightening a bit, one by one the cranes start waking up. The first ones to stir talk quietly, as if to let their companions sleep as long as possible. But soon you start picking out individual voices, a guffaw here and a commiserating call there as they discuss the news or how they slept the night before. As the sky gets lighter, the sound grows and grows. Suddenly a Bald Eagle flies over, and the crane sounds instantly reach a symphonic fortissimo as they all take off at once, adding thousands of wings beating to their loud cries.

While the geese are still present and the crane numbers are smaller, the honkers completely dominate the sound scene, as if Mother Nature had decided to try adding a brass section to a string quartet. I made this recording of takeoff last week, in a spot where the geese vastly outnumbered the cranes.

If you can’t make it to the Platte River to hear these wonderful sounds in person, the National Geographic Society has a video cam on the river at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary. You can watch and listen every morning and evening on their website. I have a link at the top of my own webpage at