Cranes! A Conversation with Keanna Leonard

1. Keanna, during March and April, the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, where you work, probably hosts more Sandhill Cranes than any other place in the world. What makes Rowe so special? How was your season last year?

The big bend region of the Platte River in central Nebraska does host the largest concentration of any Cranes in Vermont
species of cranes in the world. From around Valentine’s Day to Tax Day (April 15th) we see over 500,000 cranes. Rowe Sanctuary is located just yards from the some the most pristine river habit that cranes use for roosting.

We had around 12,000 visitors from all 50 states and 44 countries last year to witness what has been dubbed one of the top ten wildlife spectacles in the world.

Crane2. The Sandhill Crane population seems to be thriving. Have Sandhill Cranes always been numerous or is this a recent phenomenon? Do you perceive any major threats to the population down the road?

In the 70’s it was reported that there were around 300,000 sandhill cranes. Over the past 30 years the population has grown to over a half million. The staging area along the Platte River is considered the critical point in the central migration route. Cranes stay in the area for approximately three weeks eating enough food to add around 20% to their body weight. The extra weight allows them to finish their migration north in good condition and ready to begin the nesting season. For those cranes who are looking for a mate, the Platte River is also considered the night club of love. The major threat is the loss of habitat. The river is diverted, dammed, supplies water for residential, industrial, agriculture, and recreational use. What is left over is for wildlife. The river is also threatened with invasive species such as phragmites, purple loosestrife and now salt cedar. We work with many other conservation organizations negotiating water usage and keeping the river channels clear and usable for the cranes and other animals that prefer wide, open, sandy channels – such as whooping cranes, piping plovers and least terns.

3. As you know, Sandhill Cranes are beginning to appear in the Northeast, including Vermont. Is there good evidence that Sandhill Cranes are expanding their range?

We have heard that cranes are moving into new and previously abandoned territories. That is good to hear!

4. The Sandhill Crane population is currently large and stable, whereas Whooping Cranes are endangered with less than 500 individuals alive in the United States. How do you account for the striking difference in the success of these two related birds?

Actually in this flyway we had over 250 whoopers migrate north this spring! With the introduced eastern population there are now around 400 whooping cranes. To put it simply, many have surmised that whooping cranes are just pickier when it comes to both habitat and food than Sandhill Cranes.

5. Where can birders go to find out more about Sandhill Cranes? Do you have a favorite book or reference?

I recommend that anyone who would like to read more about Sandhill Cranes find these two books: On Ancient Wings by Michael Forsberg and Crane Music by Dr. Paul Johnsgard. Good websites include the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org), Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust (www.whoopingcrane.org) and of course our website at www.rowesanctuary.org. Don’t forget to check out the Crane Cam that runs live throughout March and April. A great DVD is Crane Song by the NET Foundation for Television.

6. If Vermonters would like to plan a trip to the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary in Nebraska to see the Sandhill Cranes, what is the best time of year to visit? Do you conduct an organized program of lectures and field trips during the crane season?

The best time to see Sandhill Cranes is the first of March through the first week of April. We conduct field trips to our viewing blinds twice a day – 6:30 A.M. and P.M. - to watch cranes leave or come back to the river. During the day throughout the season we offer public educational programs. If people would like to get more involved, we also conduct one of the oldest wildlife conferences in the United States, the Rivers and Wildlife Celebration. We also offer families the chance to learn about cranes together at our Family Crane Carnival. If you are not able to come to Rowe, do check out the Crane Cam on our website.
To make reservations or to learn more about next year’s events, just give us a call at 308-468-5282.

7. I am confused about the subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. What is the basis for splitting out the Canadian subspecies from the lessers and greaters? Or is this separation not warranted?

Most biologists have dropped the Canadian subspecies. In the field it can be difficult to distinguish lessers from greaters, but basically the lesser sandhills are 20% smaller. Through this flyway we have the majority of the lesser Sandhill Cranes in the world, but we also see greaters.

8. I was surprised to discover that hunting Sandhill Cranes is permitted, although cranes are covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty. What is the impact of hunting on the Sandhill Crane population?

Most of the states in the western part of the United States do hunt Sandhill Cranes. Nebraska is the only state in the central migratory route that does not hunt them, in fact. Right now we are seeing no obvious impact of hunting on the growth of the crane population, though.