While the robin is the traditional sign of spring in many places, in Nebraska people know the season is near when more than a half million large sandhill cranes land on the plains and roost on the Platte River while making their migratory journey north.
The birds return to the 80-mile stretch of the Platte River every year in March, reports The Guardian
, to eat, sleep and find their lifelong mating partners.
Eventually, 80 percent of the sandhill cranes in North America make their way to Nebraska to eat and rest before leaving in early April.
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The large gray birds are heading home to breeding grounds as far away as Hudson Bay in New York and there are some subspecies that go as far as eastern Siberia, after leaving their wintering grounds in Mexico and the southern United States. They fly about 200 to 400 miles each day.
The crane landings take place in three waves, lasting about four to five weeks each, reports Smithsonian Magazine
. The birds arrive emaciated. While stopping in Nebraska, they gain back about 20 percent of their body weight grazing for corn in the state's fertile farmlands.
The birds also are a large boost for Nebraska's economy. Every spring, some 70,000 crane watchers also descend onto Nebraska's Platte River landing grounds, representing bird watchers from every U.S. state and 47 countries, providing an estimated $11 million boost for Nebraska's economy. People who can't travel to Nebraska can still watch the Platte River landing site from home through a live webcam
The cranes are a link back to the world's earliest years, being traced back to the Eocene era which ended 34 million years ago, and have changed little in 10 million years, reports Smithsonian.
Some 20 million other migrating birds, representing about 300 species, stop on the Platte to refuel, including 280 of the world's extremely rare whooping cranes.
In addition, some 2 million snow geese, 90 percent of the mid-continent's white-fronted geese, 30 percent of the northern pintail ducks, thousands of piping plovers, and half of the nation's mallard ducks also land in the region in the spring. Bird watchers can also have the opportunity to see many migrating bald eagles.
The birds' traditional landing ground has been shrinking in recent years, though.
Rowe Sanctuary Director Bill Taddicken told Smithsonian diverting water for agricultural and municipal use has caused the Platte to lose 80 percent of its width and 70 percent of its flow, taking away 50 miles of crane staging habitat.
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