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‘On Ancient Wings’—The Sandhill Crane Migration

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'On Ancient Wings'—The Sandhill Crane Migration by Guest BloggerPhoto by Alan Cass

Three years ago, I drove from Denver, Colorado, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to present a shareholder resolution at Pfizer’s annual meeting. I had no inkling that just off Interstate 80, on which I was traveling, a wonder of the animal world was taking place.

I returned this year in March to view the largest animal migration outside of Africa: 600,000 sandhill cranes gathered along the Platte River, amidst 10 million other water birds, on their annual flight from their wintering grounds on the high plains of the gulf coast of Texas, the desert of New Mexico, southeast Arizona, and northern Mexico to their nesting grounds in western Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. The epicenter of this journey is near Kearney, Nebraska, where “80% of the world’s crane population descends on a sliver of threatened habitat critical to North America’s central flyway.”1 The cranes come to roost in the shallow waters and submerged sandbars of the braided prairie river and feast on waste corn in the neighboring fields before continuing on their trip, averaging 500 miles a day. Sandhill cranes have existed for 60 million years—their ancestors roamed the earth along with the dinosaurs.

As I stood in a blind in the Rowe Sanctuary at dusk, the cranes arrived in undulating waves as far as the eye could see, cooing softly to their mates and offspring, drifting down from the skies as if in parachutes. Interspersed among the cranes were immense swirling clouds of snowgeese, the setting sun glinting off their bright brilliant bodies. Early in the morning, again in the blind, I could hear the cranes calling to each other but could not see them in the darkness. As the first glimmers of light appeared, I could just make out the silhouettes of thousands upon thousands of birds and, as the light rose, they took off again in waves, geese startled off the roost by a roving bald eagle, raising the alarm for the others.

If you can somehow manage to push to the back of your mind—even temporarily—the ever-expanding theft of their habitat, the inevitable fact that some of these birds will be blasted out of the sky in other states along their flyway and in Canada, that some will suffer severe injuries from the power lines that dot their course even in the sanctuary, that the nature-loving “environmentalists” accompanying you ignore the suffering of the animals on their plates and the environmental devastation of animal agriculture, you will have an unforgettable experience and will have helped encourage a local economy to protect, rather than hunt, the birds. You will also be following Edward Abbey’s advice that “it is not enough to fight for the land, it is important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there.”

I hope you get to experience this marvel for yourselves. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the words of one of the foremost photographers of cranes, Michael Forsberg: “I will never forget the first time I saw sandhill cranes come to roost on the Platte River—strange ancient figures with long legs and trumpeting voices filling the sky and falling so gracefully, like autumn leaves, silhouettes against a river set afire by the sunset.”1

[1]Michael Forsberg, On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes of North America, 2005.

Posted by guest blogger Jessica Sandler, director of PETA’s Regulatory Testing Division.

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    ShirleyBird says...

    May 27th, 2009, 9:33 am

    Oh, how I ENVY you the experience of seeing and experiencing such a sight! May this continue on for thousands of years more. The more people who are aware of these wonderful and totally awe inspiring marvels of the natural world, the more hope that at least a few of them will be protected and survive , even if only in a somewhat diminished form.

    Marina says...

    April 21st, 2010, 9:25 pm

    Thanks for inspiring this native Nebraskan to make a point of visiting during the spring migration next year…

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