For the Birds Radio Program: Morning Cranes

Original Air Date: April 12, 1995

What is it like to see and hear 15,000 cranes waking up? Laura Erickson went to the Platte River in Nebraska and has this first-hand report. 4:13

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It’s five o’clock in the morning, and I’m shivering, standing here on a wooden foot bridge that crosses Nebraska’s Platte River. It’s very dark—over an hour and a half before sunrise—and heavy clouds obliterate moon and starlight, but I’m barely able to make out shadows of islands in the river. The black of night slowly diffuses into separate shades of gray, and it slowly dawns on me that some of these island shadows are really islands of cranes—thousands and thousands of cranes standing shoulder to shoulder in the shallow river.

Slowly, the pale light grows imperceptibly, and these islands of sleeping cranes begin to awaken. The first thing a crane does when it wakes up is to whisper gently to the love of its life. The whispering of thousands of pairs of cranes in love fills the air as if the entire earth were purring with contentment. The intensity of the whispering grows. I suspect some of the cranes are telling each other about their dreams, and others are reading an invisible crane nespaper aloud. When a loud guffaw rings out, I know there’s at least one crane listening to the avian equivalent of Dave Barry’s humor column.

This quiet, peaceful scene lasts many long minutes, but I don’t time it. There’s magic in the air, and my ornithological data collection mode has been switched off. All I can do is listen and watch. The dawn’s early light reveals more and more cranes—there must be fifteen thousand in this short stretch of river alone. Now they can see one another, and as couples look into one another’s eyes, their hearts fill with desire and they suddenly burst into dance. Cranes aren’t dapper, debonair Fred Astaire-type dancers. They’re effusive in their expressions of love, using their whole upper bodies as well as their legs, dancing with the physical exuberance and contagious good humor of Gene Kelly. When the cranes finally reach their private territories and are blissfully alone, these dances will build and erupt into actual breeding behaviors. Some ornithologists claim that migration dances are wasted energy and must not be true mating displays at all—just displacement behaviors because the cranes are nervous. These ornithologists apparently have never gone on a hot date with someone they loved.

The conversations grow more raucous, the dancing more spirited, and suddenly a new hunger sets in, and cranes are on the move—first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, weaving through the sky on their way to breakfast. Long ago they fed on marsh plant seeds, succulent roots and tubers, and sluggish morning frogs. Nowadays, thanks to the miracles of modern irrigation, agriculture, development, and the green lawns of Denver up river, the cranes fatten up mostly on waste corn left from last year on muddy fields. Strings and masses of them weave through the morning sky, graceful and lovely, the sheer numbers overwhelming. Eighty percent of the Sandhill Cranes in the entire universe descend upon a single 80-mile stretch of the Platte River every spring to fatten up before the last leg of their migration, and it’s impossible to drive along Interstate 80 through central Nebraska in March without seeing some. As many as 500,000 sleep on the river and spend their days afield in this small area, teaching us the right way to start the day—with gentle conversation, effusive expressions of love, and breakfast. In that order.