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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