For the Birds

gayle-at-estesThis post by Gayle M. Irwin

In about one month, spring will officially arrive. Most people I know are looking forward to the new season, the increasing daylight, the green sprigs of grass that arise from winter’s sleep, the color of flowers like daffodils and tulips in bloom. Some regions enjoy an early spring, with warming weather and less (or no) snow, while other places, like where I live, don’t see “real spring” until May or even June (when others are already experiencing summer!).

No matter where one lives, though, spring, whenever it does arrive, is welcomed by most people I know.

One of the reasons I enjoy spring so much is the quantity of birdlife that arrives during this new season. Robins hop around yards, looking for worms in the warming earth. Bluebirds trill from fenceposts along the highways, and Canada geese honk overhead as they return from snowbirding sections of the country. Two birds I especially enjoy witnessing return are the American kestrel and the sandhill crane.

Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Kestrels are North America’s smallest falcons. One of the most colorful of all raptors, the male sports a slate-blue head and wings with a rusty-colored back and tail. Females are a dull brown but patches of white mix with grey create a crown upon their head. One is likely to see these striking birds perched atop wires or hovering in the wind. They eat insects as well as small rodents, and have been known to add snakes and frogs to their diet. Kestrels are found throughout the United States and take up summer residence in the northern part of the country. They live in a variety of habitats, from prairies and woodlands to towns.

Sandhill cranes are among my most favorite large bird species. I learned so much about these amazing animals while working for a summer in Wisconsin at the International Crane Foundation (ICF). I served as an educational tour guide and contributed content to the Education Department’s classroom and on-site curricula. That was a fun job! I would have returned for another season, but I’d decided it was time to settle down to something more permanent … and I’d met Greg by then. During our one-year anniversary, he and I visited the site, and he became even more intrigued by cranes as well.

Photo credit: International Crane Foundation

The largest migration of sandhill cranes takes place in Nebraska from early March to early April. More than 600,000 of these tall, lanky birds (or about 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population) use the Platte River as a resting ground; many of these birds travel 2,000 miles from their winter grounds in the southwestern U.S. (or even farther south) and return to summer residences throughout northern America as well as Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. The cranes are welcomed in Nebraska as are the numerous white snow geese and other birds that use the Platte River during migration. Thousands of tourists, nature photographers, and writers converge on the communities of Kearney and Gibbon. Mid-month, Kearney hosts a Crane Festival, with speakers, exhibits, and tours to bird blinds along the river. Greg and I have often talked of going, as Kearney is a day’s drive from our home in Casper. This adventure remains on our bucket list.


Sandhill Crane at JKL Ranch, Kaycee, Wyoming – G. Irwin photo

We do occasionally see the 3- to 4-foot tall sandhills in the Casper area; however, most often they are observed in other parts of our state, particularly farther west. We’ve seen them in Yellowstone and the Jackson, Wyoming areas, as well as in various parts of Montana. Near my parents’ residence outside Lewistown, Montana, we often see and hear cranes, especially at dusk in ranchers’ fields. Sandhills snack on grain, insects, and small rodents. Their calls and ritualistic dances are sounds and sights that take your breath away!

Another large gathering of sandhill cranes takes place during winter months at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Near the town of Socorro, this special place provides haven not only for sandhills, but also for thousands of ducks, geese, shorebirds, and other wildlife. Greg and I have both visited this majestic sanctuary along the Rio Grande River, but not at the same time. We hope to change that as we’re looking to make a southwest U.S. tour, through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, this fall.

Photo credit: International Crane Foundation

There are 15 species of cranes found around the world; only two live in the United States – the sandhill and the whooping crane. Whoopers are distinguished by their unique call and their tall, white bodies. An endangered species, these animals were at a low of only 15 birds in 1941; today nearly 600 live in the wild and in captivity. Theirs is a conservation success story, but still a fledgling one. Occasionally a whooping crane or two will be seen among the flocks of sandhills in Nebraska, and once or twice they have been spotted in Yellowstone. They are becoming more abundant during summertime in Wisconsin, thanks to a major partnership effort to re-establish populations by ICF, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others. The birds in these small migrating flocks winter in Florida and wing north for summers in Wisconsin, often residing at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. I have seen a few there when I’ve returned to the state to visit the friends I made back in 1998 when I worked for ICF. I hope to do that again in the short-run.

Temperatures rise, buds sprout, and winged creatures migrate north. As spring returns, so do the birds – I look forward to both!


Gayle M. Irwin enjoys nature, pets, writing, travel, and photography. She is the author of several inspirational pet stories for children and adults and is a contributing writer to six Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She also writes articles for magazines and newspapers. Learn more at

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16 thoughts on “For the Birds

    1. Same here, Abbie — schools let out around 12:30 on Thursday and many businesses closed, including True Care where I work part-time. I took the afternoon to nap and read — not bad for a winter’s day, but I DO look forward to spring! Thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That was a great post, Gayle! Cranes are very elegant birds. Do the sandhills migrate in V formations like many types of geese? At present I’m enjoying the magpies in my garden as they seem to have some interplay with the woodpidgeons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think the cranes form as much of a V as geese, Nancy — most times, when paired, the two fly side-by-side or at least close together. In the larger flocks I’ve seen, they do tend to have a leader or two. The time I was at Bos del Apache, the sandhills came into the refuge in two large “swarms” — hundreds together; was a breath-taking sight! Thanks for stopping by to read and comment. Enjoy your spring birds — and your garden!!


  2. I love the sandhills too. They used to gather in our pasture at our lake in North Dakota. We could hear their chatter at our farm house, about 3/4 miles away. Hundreds of them. Occasionally we saw whooping cranes fly over also. So many migratory birds seem to stay in Wyoming in the winter. We’ve seen Robins, ducks, woodpeckers and crows this winter. March is migratory month in ND so imagine we’ll see the birds more soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. North Dakota is on the Central Flyway, as I understand, so yes, I can imagine how many and the varied types of bird-life you’d see there, Neva. Even in Iowa, where I grew up, we’d encounter different types of ducks, but I never saw cranes until I moved west. One of my fondest memories of living outside of Yellowstone National Park were the trumpeter swans — one time, six flew over my house; it was a beautiful sight! Cranes have become some of my favorite birds since that summer working in Wisconsin — they are so majestic! Thanks for reading my post and commenting, Neva, and for sharing your reflections.


  3. I love birds yet know very little about wild ones (I had pet birds growing up). I had no idea whooping cranes are an endangered species, poor things. They are the only type of crane I’ve heard of. Do you happen to know why they’re endangered? Hunters? Thanks for an informative fun post, Gayle!

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  4. Sarah, whooping cranes became endangered for 2 primary reasons:: habitat loss and killing for feathers — women’s hats of the early 1900s boasted plumes of feathers, so cranes, egrets, swans and other beautiful birds were killed for fashion — the Migratory Bird Act helped put a stop to that, but it was too late for some species and nearly too late for others. Power lines also contribute to crane deaths — the birds often fly into them. One day during the winter months you should take a trip to New Mexico and visit Bos del Apache — you will truly be inspired by the sandhill crane congregation there! Thank you for reading my post, for your comments and encouraging words. What type of pet birds did you have growing up? I once had a parakeet and later, two finches — they were fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Read and enjoyed the post on break at work yesterday, but didn’t get back to the computer until tonight. Lots of things to look forward to. Colorado has a crane festival each year in Monte Vista, near the Great Sand Dunes. Hope to make it down there one day. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that information, Doris – I will have to add that festival to my bucket list!! Spring is one of my favorite seasons, and I’m looking forward to the colorful flowers and birds soon! In fact, a Kestrel flew into our yard this weekend, after my post appeared…. the first time ever, so something’s up with that…. 🙂


  6. I didn’t realize I hadn’t read your post. Fascinating look at cranes. Reminds me of the long-neck birds we’d see in Central Florida when I lived there in the 1980s — egrets and the Great Blue Herons. A heron once walked up to the back sliding glass door and looked inside. Why? My white furred cat Blue was on the other side of the door staring at it. They had a staring contest. I think they were fascinated with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderful story, Mike — thank you for sharing! Creatures are so enjoyable to observe! I saw egrets when Greg and I visited the North Carolina coast — they are beautiful! God has given us so many blessings in nature — I truly enjoy beholding the beauty! Thanks for reading and commenting and sharing your story!


  7. Thanks for sharing. I once planned the timing of a trip to Florida to coordinate with the cranes arrival. I had 4 days planned in Florida. I arrived a day before the cranes were expected, picked out a great location to see them fly in and waited. Unfortunately they hit some bad weather and two of the Cranes got lost. The Cranes arrived the day after I headed home. But that is how it goes sometimes.


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