Cranes Across California and Beyond

January 1, 2006

The several thousand sandhill cranes that come to the Cosumnes River Preserve each year are just a fraction of the 250,000 sandhills that visit California, with populations as far north as the Klamath Basin and as far south as the Carrizo Plain.

For really impressive crane numbers, though, it’s hard to top Nebraska’s Platte River Basin. The Platte and North Platte Rivers host over 500,000 sandhill cranes during peak times, making this the largest gathering of cranes in the world.

According to the International Crane Foundation, Nebraska is also home to a 10 million-year-old Miocene crane fossil that is structurally identical to the modern sandhill crane, making sandhills the oldest known surviving bird species.

How many species?

There are fifteen living species of crane and an additional 36 extinct species. North America has only two species of crane—whooping cranes and sandhill cranes.

What distinguishes cranes from other birds?

Cranes are recognizable by their long necks and legs. They also are characterized by their noisy courtship “dances.”

How are cranes different from similar-looking herons and egrets?

Unlike herons, cranes fly with necks outstretched, not pulled back.

What is the range of North American cranes?

Historically, the endangered whooping crane’s range extended from Utah south to Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico. At present, the only self-sustaining wild population consists of about 150 birds migrating between summer breeding grounds in northern Canada and wintering habitat along the Texas coast. Whooping cranes are primarily limited to the Sass River area of northern Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territory and Aransas National Wildlife Reserve in Texas.

The more common sandhill crane ranges across the entire United States and Canada, with non-migrating subspecies in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba.

What challenges do cranes face?

The greatest threat to sandhill cranes is habitat loss and degradation. This is particularly true along the Platte River Basin, where development pressures are threatening this highly important staging area. Non-migratory subspecies are facing similar challenges in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba. In recent years, the sandhill crane has been dependent on suitable wetlands and agricultural lands for nesting and foraging. However, cranes’ impact on farmland has strained the relationship between sandhills and farmers in some places.

Due to their small population size, whooping cranes are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic events such as hurricanes, oil spills, and disease. Loss of habitat has also contributed greatly to the decline of the species.

What is being done to protect cranes?

Listed as an endangered species since 1967, the whooping crane has been the subject of extensive conservation efforts on the part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and numerous other groups. Captive breeding programs are ongoing, as are attempts to increase the whooping crane’s distribution by establishing wild flocks in several locations around North America. On the high-tech end, ultralight aircraft are being used to guide whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida in an attempt to increase the species’ range.

Efforts are being made to maintain a positive relationship between sandhill cranes and the agricultural community, since farm fields represent crucial habitat—and crops a tempting meal—for the birds.

Where can I find more information about cranes?

International Crane Foundation, www.savingcranes.org

National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org

Whooping Crane Conservation Association, www.whoopingcrane.com

US Fish and Wildlife Services, www.fws.gov/who

Operation Migration, www.operationmigration.org

Where can I see cranes in California?

Ash Creek Wildlife Area, www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region1/ashcreek.html

Butte Valley Basin Wildlife Area, www.fs.fed.us/outdoors/naturewatch/california/Wildlife/butte-valley-basin

Carrizo Plain Natural Area, www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield/Programs/carrizo.html

Cosumnes River Preserve, www.cosumnes.org

Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region2/graylodge/index.html

Honey Lake Wildlife Area, www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region1/honeylake.html

Los Banos Wildlife Area, www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/losbanos.html

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=11652

Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, modoc.fws.gov

Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/pacific/refuges/field/CA_Pixley.htm

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, sacramentovalleyrefuges.fws.gov

Shasta Valley Wildlife Area, www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region1/shastavalley.html

Tule Lake/Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges

Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/er/region3/woodbridge.html

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