Date of this Version
Johnsgard, "Nebraska's Sandhill Crane Population, Past, Present, and Future," from Nebraska Bird Review (December 2002) 70(4).
Although the spring concentrations of Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska's Platte Valley are now an avian phenomenon known nationwide, a general appreciation and inventory of this unique concentration of birds has only been attempted in the last few decades. I am often asked how long this largest of all crane concentrations has been occurring in the Platte Valley, and why it has developed only there. Here I will try to summarize the little-known history of this marvelous assemblage, but not dwell on the ecological reasons for it. The latter are now generally well understood to revolve around abundant spring food supplies (now almost entirely corn) and safe nocturnal roosting sites (the sandy bars and islands of the uniquely wide and shallow Platte River).
Perhaps the earliest known account of Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River was that of an early Plains explorer, John Hunter, who reported seeing Sandhill Cranes on the central Platte in the spring of 1 834. Hundreds of thousands of human migrants moved west along the Oregon and Mormon trails during the middle 1800s. However, they typically timed their arrival in the Platte Valley for late spring, when the river could be safely crossed at Fort Kearney or points farther upstream, and when a mid-summer ascent to the Rocky Mountain passes would be most feasible. By late spring the cranes would have already departed the Platte Valley, and so it is not surprising that no mention of cranes appears in emigrant diaries and journals.