They’ve been doing it for millions of years, riding the thermals over North America, with migrations spanning thousands of miles each year. Threatened with extinction over the past century, these most stately of birds are the subject of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes: Ancient Voices over America’s Wetlands, by crane expert Paul Johnsgard.
Updating the current status of North America’s two crane species, Johnsgard – an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska – lays out all the details, covering the various sandhill subspecies, wintering, breeding and migrating locations as well as recent conservation efforts. He includes everything one would need to know in order to observe these birds in the wild, focusing in particular on the massive migratory gatherings of sandhill cranes in Nebraska’s Platte River wetlands each spring and fall. In an appendix he provides helpful viewing guidance for each state and province.
Despite penning a primarily scientific 150 page document, Johnsgard is still able to share some of the passion he has for these birds. His descriptions of the lesser sandhill’s migratory efforts left me in awe. Wintering in eastern New Mexico, the birds spend three months flying as far as Alaska and eastern Siberia, quickly raise some young, teach them how to fly and then turn around and fly back before winter returns. This astonishing spectacle is all the more impressive given the paucity of favorable rest sites and the abundance of hunters who kill about 20,000 birds each year.
Other than clubbing a baby seal, I can think of few things more evident of ecological moral depravity than shooting a sandhill crane, yet in many states and provinces it’s entirely legal. Clearly, these particular hunters must be striving to make up for other shortcomings in their lives. Johnsgard and many others have devoted much of their lives to protecting these birds and royalties from this book have been assigned to support local Nebraska crane conservation efforts.
On a similar note, the author also discusses the plight of the whooping crane – still numbering just a few hundred in the wild. He details their annual migration from northern Alberta to coastal Texas and reveals details about the effort to establish a new population in the eastern US by guiding juveniles from Wisconsin to Florida with ultra-light aircraft. Amazingly, the birds have been able to find their way back to Wisconsin with remarkable consistency.
In addition to all the scientific minutiae, Johnsgard includes sixteen beautiful black and white drawings, as well as three maps showing distributions and migratory routes for the various species and subspecies.
I’ve been a crane enthusiast for years, always stopping to enjoy the appearance of sandhill cranes when I’m out cycling in the Wisconsin countryside. The thrill of their trumpeting call and the beauty of their majestic flight never cease to amaze. I’m happy to report a definite increase in sightings over the past couple decades. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes captures some of the magic and provides the information needed to see these splendid birds on your own.
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