Alabama is a winter paradise for sandhill cranes

This story is part of a monthly series called external connectionswhich contains stories that explore Alabama’s biodiversity and how we depend on it.

Park ranger David Young walks the gravel walkways of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and looks up at the sky as a flock of sandhill cranes soar overhead and make a loud chorus of noises.

“I just love that call. It’s very dinosaur-like,” Young said.

With a wingspan of up to five feet, sandhill cranes typically have gray feathers with a bright red patch on their foreheads.

As the birds fly in unison, they stretch out their long, thin necks and stretch their skinny legs back as they enjoy a chilly day at the swampy refuge in Decatur.

“We have three things that they really like,” Young said. “We have water. We have open fields that are relatively undisturbed. And we have the groceries. We have the food.”

On 35,000 acres near the Tennessee River, Wheeler employees work with cooperative farmers to grow crops like corn and leave a portion for the cranes to forage.

The sanctuary is home to hundreds of different species of birds, fish, reptiles, shells and more. But the cranes bring the crowds.

Up to 25,000 sandhills migrate to Wheeler each winter, along with a handful of critically endangered whooping cranes.

Nature lovers can visit the sanctuary throughout the season for a glimpse of the large waterfowl. But the annual Crane Festival, hosted with support from the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association, is reserved each January for birdwatching and celebrations.

People gather at a glass-paneled window in an observation room to see cranes.
Onlookers gather in an observation room at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Alberto Enes Romero

“It was great,” said nine-year-old Nashville resident Lara Badri, who attended the festival with her family. “I have seen many sand hills. But I tried to see cranes.”

Compared to the sandhills, whooping cranes are about a foot taller and have bright white feathers. And they are much rarer.

There are about 836 whooping cranes worldwide that are critically endangered, according to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a nonprofit organization working to protect and reintroduce the species worldwide. Current numbers, while low, reflect decades of conservation efforts, recovering from a population of fewer than 20 birds in 1941.

A white whooping crane soars while four gray sandhill cranes stand in the background
A Whooping Crane soars while Sandhill Cranes stand in the background in Michigan. Photo by Jim Hudgins/US Fish and Wildlife Service

“When I heard they were actually revived by scientists, I always wanted to see one,” Badri said.

This year 13 of the rare birds have been sighted at the refuge, a few fewer than in previous seasons.

Legina Jenkins, an ICF volunteer, spends the winter months driving around northern Alabama looking for whooping cranes. She knows the quirks of every bird.

“The four of you stay together. I refer to them as the fabulous four,” Jenkins said. “Then there’s another one that stays all alone with the sand mounds in the visitor center. And then there’s another couple who stay in a really remote area. They don’t like company. They remain really isolated.”

Jenkins said one of the female cranes returned this year without her mate, who appears to have disappeared during the migration.

“We’re really scared something happened to him, but we don’t know for sure,” Jenkins said.

Both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes typically mate for life, and both have a robust collection of dance moves that they use to communicate.

The sanctuary is equipped with outdoor viewing platforms, boardwalks, and an indoor viewing platform where visitors can watch the birds in action.

While spotting a whooping crane is difficult, birders will be rewarded with hundreds if not thousands of sandhill cranes congregating in miles of wetlands.

“There are a lot of those,” said Harvest’s Danielle Ford. “I was curious when we pulled up to see the large herd of them. I was like ‘Wow.’ I had never seen so many at once.”

A GIF shows a video of a group of sandhill cranes in a grassy area.
Sandhill Cranes are seen through a tower viewer at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Video by Alberto Enes Romero

Sandhill cranes are numerous today, with more than 500,000 birds worldwide, but the species was also once on the brink of extinction, the result of habitat loss and overhunting about a century ago.

The species recovered so much thanks to conservation efforts that Alabama reinstated the sandhill hunting season a few years ago, although hunting is not allowed at the refuge.

Both the sandhill and whooping cranes are expected to remain in Wheeler for a few more weeks before returning north.

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