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Cranes

Nebraska has two species of cranes — the sandhill crane and the whooping crane — and these species offer very different viewing experiences. The spring sandhill crane migration is predictable, massive and impressive. Whooping cranes are so rare, just seeing is a spectacle.

Identifying characteristics

Sandhill crane: A grayish-brown bird with white cheeks and throats and a prominent red crown. The crown, a patch of unfeathered skin, starts at the base of the bill and extends to the top of the head. Most easily recognized by its call, a sandhill crane can be heard up to half a mile away. At midday, soaring kettles of cranes can often be heard but not seen due to their ability to ride thermals to an altitude of a few thousand feet.

Whooping crane: A stately white bird with black primaries and red foreheads. The whooping crane’s haunting, resonant bugle results from one of the longest windpipes in the bird world. These birds have proven less adaptable than sandhill cranes. They’re more dependent on marshes, and they’re less able to take advantage of the nutritional windfall of grain left in crop fields. Male whoopers can weigh more than 17 pounds, making them one of the three largest cranes in the world.

Crane watching

The Platte River and the surrounding area in central Nebraska provides essential food and nutrients that sustain sandhill cranes for the rest of migration and for nesting. Disturbances during their critical stay in Nebraska can cause the birds to leave in poor condition, jeopardizing reproductive success when they arrive on their northern nesting grounds. The highest number of cranes are found between Kearney and Grand Island.
View the Aububon Crane Cam

Crane watching etiquette

Crane watchers should avoid disturbing the cranes at their roosting or feeding areas:

  • Do not approach cranes on foot while they are in fields. Cranes do not tolerate humans.
  • Stay in your car and use it as a blind.
  • Use appropriate locations for viewing the cranes on the river. Do not attempt to approach or otherwise disturb cranes on the river.
  • Never approach a whooping crane. Flushing a whooping crane violates the Endangered Species Act. Stay in your car.
  • Download the Whooping Crane disturbance guidelines.

Many paved and gravel roads traverse the area, and traffic travels fast. While driving to crane viewing areas, observe the following rules:

  • Do not slow or stop on the road. Drive onto the shoulder.
  • Never slow down or stop on bridges.
  • Never block a driveway or any other farm road.
  • Most land adjacent to the river and all of the agricultural fields are private property, so visitors should stay on county roads, stay off of farm roads and driveways; assume all property is private and obtain owner permission before entering; never cross a fence or open a cattle gate without the owner’s permission; take care not to disturb farm animals; cross cropland or touch farm equipment; and respect the rights and property of the people who live in the area.

Crane FAQ

Where do sandhill cranes spend the winter?

Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico.

What do they eat?

Cranes are omnivores – they eat a variety of foods. In Nebraska they eat corn, other grains, invertebrates and plant roots or shoots. Cranes also eat small mammals or birds and eggs.

Are cranes hunted?

Yes, within the Central Flyway cranes are hunted in 14 states and all of the Canadian provinces. They are not hunted in Nebraska. They are difficult to hunt, and usually less than 5 percent of the population is taken annually. Hunting of western and eastern populations of cranes is not allowed.

Are cranes eaten?

Yes, sandhill crane tastes somewhat like goose.

Why are their heads red?

The red foreheads on a crane is bare skin, which can be flared when cranes are angry or sexually excited.

Are they endangered or threatened?

No. As a species, the sandhill crane population is stable or rising.

Do they cause crop damage?

Yes, large flocks of cranes like to feed in grain fields across their range. Farmers in central Canada often resort to hazing to keep cranes from damaging wheat fields.

Why are some brown and some gray?

Crane feathers are gray to grayish white. In some parts of the country, iron from the soil gives their feathers a reddish-brown tint when the cranes preen.

How can you tell the difference between cranes and herons?

Cranes fly with their necks outstretched, while herons have crooked necks. Herons usually fish individually in streams or lake edges; cranes prefer to feed in family units in fields. Herons can land in trees; cranes cannot. Cranes nest in wetlands and do not tolerate other cranes nearby. Herons nest in trees in colonies, called rookeries.