#67: Ancient Birds and Modern Migrations – Sandhill and Whooping Cranes with Bethany Ostrom

#67: Ancient Birds and Modern Migrations – Sandhill and Whooping Cranes with Bethany Ostrom Nature's Archive


Today we dive into the captivating world of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes with wildlife biologist Bethany Ostrom from the Crane Trust.

These majestic birds have a rich history, with fossil records showing them to be some of the oldest modern birds. Today, they continue to amaze us by congregating in massive numbers along their ancient migration route through Nebraska.

In this episode, Bethany helps us understand the unique phenomenon of crane migration, and why the Platte River in Nebraska is such an important stopover for over 1 million cranes each spring.

Sandhill Cranes, near Kearney, NE. Photo by Michael Hawk

Bethany also provides a broader perspective on Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes, helping us to understand how these birds live, from their diets, to their unique dancing displays. She also helps us understand why Sandhill Cranes are generally increasing in numbers despite massive changes to their environment.

However, Whooping Cranes have not been as fortunate, with populations dropping to only 15 individuals at one point. Bethany helps us understand how this occurred, and how recent conservation efforts have helped to increase their populations.

These magnificent birds are truly a wonder to behold, and we encourage you to seek them out if you have an opportunity. Sandhill Cranes can be found in nearly every state at various times of the year.

You can find the Crane Trust on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as at their website.

Did you have a question that I didn’t ask? Let me know at naturesarchivepodcast@gmail.com, and I’ll try to get an answer!

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Sandhill Crane, Osceola County, FL Photo by Michael Hawk

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Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.

[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: All right, Bethany, thank you so much for joining me. Kind of on short notice too,

[00:00:03] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. Thank you for having.

[00:00:06] Michael Hawk: Having grown up in Nebraska, I’ve been keenly aware of Sandhill cranes for a long time and the fact that they stage on their migratory route there in Nebraska, and for some reason I just hadn’t been thinking ahead and suddenly here we are, it’s March and the cranes are coming through and it’s oh no, I didn’t have an interview lined up.

[00:00:27] So thank you again so much for being willing to do this in the heart of your busy season. None.

[00:00:33] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, no, it’s definitely busy, but it’s always fun to make time for, unique things,

[00:00:38] Michael Hawk: Yeah. Oh, so much to talk about with the cranes, but let’s first talk about you a little bit and how did you get interested in nature in the first place?

[00:00:49] Bethany Ostrom: So I’ve been an animal person since as long as I can remember. I kind of grew up on a little acreage out in the country, and so we had area for me to like go and explore and. I had a quite an imagination and curiosity to figure out what was around me and all that. And so yeah, I was always very focused on the animals and wanted to have every pet under the sun when I was little, and that kind of just grew and matured as I did, and. just always stayed interested in animals and nature and just kept the course till it finally became my career. So was lucky that something I love was able to be something I get to do for a living.

[00:01:33] Michael Hawk: When. Out exploring on your acreage, which animals stand out in your mind as things that you would come across?

[00:01:40] Bethany Ostrom: Oh, I mean it was, in the midst of a bunch of corn fields and stuff, cuz I grew up in Nebraska. But, oh, I would always run into, raccoons and see evidence of possums and evidence of deer and. I know there were birds there, but ironically I didn’t actually pay attention to birds too much.

[00:01:59] When I was little. We had a little stick hut in this area of our land that we called the trees or the forest, and I always imagined I was like a coyote in our little stick hut. And honestly, I didn’t see too many animals. I just had the imagination that they were there with me kind of thing. so kind of dorky, but

[00:02:21] Michael Hawk: It, it works. So you, you said that this interest matured with you as you grew up. So then did you go into university knowing you were gonna get into wildlife biology?

[00:02:32] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. Originally I started my undergrad just as a biology major. I. Actually really realized I could specialize in wildlife until I was in college. And so then I switched majors to Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. And that was a great choice for me because I definitely wanted to be more focused on the ecology and. Wildlife in general, rather than focused on cells or the anatomy of animals or humans or whatever that would look like in the more general biology field.

[00:03:08] Michael Hawk: Yeah, that was actually an impediment for me as well, because going through high school I always thought biology was like Petri dishes and cellular level, and In that formative stage, at least I didn’t realize that this whole other world existed, and I wonder what my path would’ve been if I had known that, but I stayed away from biology for that reason.

[00:03:28] Bethany Ostrom: . Yeah. My husband’s actually a biology teacher at a high school . And, I love it when he can include more like ecology into his classes and really show that biology isn’t just about memorizing words and meanings of these scientific words. It’s a process, it’s a curiosity.

[00:03:50] Michael Hawk: So then when did Cranes come into your.

[00:03:54] Bethany Ostrom: Cranes actually didn’t really have too much of a imprint on my life. I grew up in the area of Grand Island and the Platte River, at least in high school, and I remember. My parents taking me out into the fields when the cranes were coming migrating through and I was like, oh, okay. I guess I’ll go out into the fields and watch the cranes.

[00:04:16] And I mean, it was so weird because I’m still like interested in biology, but I just kind of thought it was weird that we were doing this. And so it really wasn’t until I went off to college that I’m like, oh my gosh, this is an amazing thing that’s going on here. But then I didn’t even think about it being part of my career until I actually took a job here at the Crane Trust.

[00:04:37] And I didn’t even take it for the fact that I would be studying cranes. It was a whole different reason.

[00:04:45] Michael Hawk: And what was that?

[00:04:46] Bethany Ostrom: So I I ended up here because the crane trust, when they do their research and their studying of the ecosystem, it’s a very holistic approach. So I was really interested in essentially everything related to ecology. How the plants affect the animals and how the animals affect the plants, and how the soil affects the insects and how the insects. Provide food for, the birds or the whatever is out there. And just the whole web of ecology. And that’s really what the Crane Trust focuses on in their research is the broader scope, the holistic ecology, rather than just one species or a few species. And so that’s why I was so intrigued of joining the Crane trust in the first place.

[00:05:37] Michael Hawk: Ecology always speaks to me. That’s what I think has been the big draw in my progression as well. When you’re looking at the broader ecology of the area that Crane Trust operates in, , is it still with an eye towards how it affects the cranes or is there a different mission ?

[00:05:58] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, no. So we we do focus on how we can protect and. Keep the habitat and the ecosystem healthy for specifically whooping cranes actually and other migratory birds. Just because this is. Right smack dab in the middle of what we call the central Flyway for a lot of different migratory birds.

[00:06:20] So this area is really important and so we always point everything back to how does it affect the whooping crane, but when you look at the broader scope of ecology everything does, so it gives us a pretty wide scope of the different questions we can ask and answer in our research.

[00:06:40] Michael Hawk: And the question I want to ask is, what is it about, I don’t know if it’s the habitats or the topography or what, but what is the draw for the central Flyway? , why are these birds all coming through your area?

[00:06:53] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, that’s a great question. So for cranes specifically, it really is because. We have this section of the Platte River that has at least histor historically had really wide channels, unobstructed views, so like minimal trees around the banks. And it had this mosaic of different habitats.

[00:07:16] There are what we call wet meadows, which are kind of like wetlands mixed with a prairie almost. And so we have wetlands and prairies and upland portions, sandy ridges rivers, ponds, lakes. We have this huge mosaic of all these landscapes. They provide so much opportunity for a vast selection of birds to come through and have what they need for their migration.

[00:07:44] Michael Hawk: Yeah, having driven through the area many times, I, I’m sure the habitat, like so many, are different today than perhaps they were, hundreds of years ago when these migratory pathways were first being established. But the Platte River, my. Characterization of it is, it’s a really wide and shallow river, and then the floodplain around it is also really wide too.

[00:08:10] So I can definitely see as you’re describing this, if you have say, a lot of springtime rain or late winter snow melt and the water’s really flowing, it could create these side channels that turn into. Marshy meadow, wet meadow kind of habitat. So that makes sense to me that there’s just a lot of diversity, right.

[00:08:30] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so the Platte River is actually a, what we call a braided river. It’s. Essentially like an endangered river system. And it means it is really wide and shallow and it creates these channels that have a lot of variability from flood to drought kind of thing.

[00:08:51] And it’s able to meander its way through the landscape in a braided fashion,

[00:08:56] Michael Hawk: If you look at the satellite view, you can definitely see the braided of the

[00:09:00] river.

[00:09:01] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah.

[00:09:01] Michael Hawk: So the, that’s interesting. I think the shallowness of the water will come in here to the life history of cranes. So why don’t we just work our way into the cranes the main topic for today, and can you tell me there’s lots of different crane species, but let’s talk about the sandhill cranes.

[00:09:18] They’re the most numerous that you have there. what do they look like? When did they come in? Just start to gimme a feel for for what it is that you see. If you were to go out there, say today, and and survey the l.

[00:09:30] Bethany Ostrom: So at Sandhill Crane. Almost looks similar to a heron type bird. So they’re a wading bird, and they have, so they have long legs. Their coloration is like a grayish in the adults. And then they have that long neck with a long pointy beak. And what is distinguished about the Sandhill crane as they have a little red patch on their head that actually isn’t feathers, it’s blood vessels that are really close to the skin.

[00:09:57] Michael Hawk: those blood vessels that create the red patch on the head of the crane. I didn’t realize that. And I guess I, I probably should have known that when we’re looking at other cranes that have red on their head, is it also blood vessels just in a different arrangement?

[00:10:09] Bethany Ostrom: Yep. Yep.

[00:10:10] Michael Hawk: Interesting. So we’ll talk about some whooping cranes later and perhaps some others, but the pointy.

[00:10:16] Bill, that’s another question. You characterize the sandhill cranes looking a little bit like a heron and who also have a very pointy bill, and I’ve seen heron actually forage by using that bill as kind of like a weapon where they will say pierce a fish or some other prey with it. Do, how do cranes forage?

[00:10:38] What do they.

[00:10:39] Bethany Ostrom: So Sandhill cranes are, they’re omnivores but they eat a lot of grains. So when they’re here In their migration, they actually eat a lot of waste corn that’s leftover from the harvest. But then they also eat a lot of invertebrates. So they eat snails. The shell provides a lot of calcium for them and just other macroinvertebrates that are found in the soil.

[00:11:03] Um, A lot of earthworms, actually. That’s a huge part of their protein diet as well. they aren’t as much of the carnivorous kind of crane. The whooping crane is a little more carnivorous than a Sandhill crane. So they use their bill or beak to probe the soil for those macroinvertebrates. and I mean, I guess they could end up like stabbing or piercing the earth worms or snails, but for the most part they use it to just get deep enough into the soil to grab those inverts.

[00:11:37] Michael Hawk: Interesting. So kind of like shorebirds in a way that.

[00:11:41] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah.

[00:11:42] Michael Hawk: Yeah.

[00:11:42] Foraging on a ocean beach

[00:11:44] Bethany Ostrom: Exactly.

[00:11:45] Michael Hawk: You mentioned that they enjoy feeding these days on some of the waste corn from the nearby agriculture.

[00:11:53] What would their foraging habits have? before, I mean, I’m assuming these birds would’ve migrated through the same area before we had farms in the area. So what would they have been eating back?

[00:12:04] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so they would’ve been eating native grains or native seeds left over by, from the native plants that were growing in the prairies or the wet meadows. There’s been this really unique adaptation of the cranes, the sandal cranes to essentially change their diet along with the changing.

[00:12:24] Of our land use. So going from native prairies to more agricultural fields, they’ve been able to be one of the lucky ones to be able to adapt to that land use change and go from these native grains to corn, which actually is, adds a lot of calories to their diet.

[00:12:43] Michael Hawk: So then it sounds like this adaptation to start eating corn has not been detrimental to their overall health.

[00:12:51] Bethany Ostrom: Like I said they’re one of the lucky ones of the animal kingdom to be able to adapt and thrive with this change in our landscape.

[00:13:01] Michael Hawk: So here we are in March and the cranes are migrating through. Tell me a little bit about what is happening on their migration. How long do they stay? How many show up? Where are they coming from?

[00:13:13] Bethany Ostrom: So I’ll start with where they’re coming from. There’s a few different subpopulations of Sandhill cranes. But generally they spend their winters in. Southern United States, so Texas, Arizona down into Mexico. A little bit into the south, southeast. And then they will, start their migration and every once in a while they’ll have, find like a stop over site where they’ll uh, eat up for the journey.

[00:13:42] But then they’ll come here to the Central Platte River in south central Nebraska and they’ll stay here for two to three weeks and gain almost like 30 to 40% of their body mass. I mean, they’re pretty they’re tall birds, but they’re pretty light, they might. Here being nine pounds and leave being 12 pounds kind of thing.

[00:14:06] So they spend their time foraging doing lots of social behaviors out in the river and then also out in the fields in the meadows. And once they’ve gained enough weight, they feel like they have enough energy to get to their next stop oversight, then they will catch. thermal and ride up into the sky really high and continue their migration north up into, Northern United States, Canada, even Siberia.

[00:14:36] Michael Hawk: Oh wow. So they’ll go over the pole, basically or around the pole over to Siberia. Wow.

[00:14:42] Bethany Ostrom: Yep. So they’re very long distance migrators. They, I believe they can go 300, 400 miles a day.

[00:14:50] Michael Hawk: Yeah that’s really impressive for such a big bird to to go that far. I was kind of visualizing a map as you were talking about where they come from. So it’s almost like in the southern part of the United States, you have this fan out that goes, from Arizona, New Mexico, across.

[00:15:06] all the way to the south, and then a concentration point in Nebraska where they all meet up, and then fan out again as they head north to their breeding grounds.

[00:15:16] Bethany Ostrom: Yep. That’s a classic map that you’ll see around here, especially in March or what we call crane season. Is that map Oh, just like the United State or north America, essentially with a funnel, right. Focused on Nebraska as that.

[00:15:34] Michael Hawk: Yeah. That old Central Flyway. So one of the things that really struck me, the first time I saw the cranes was the sound, and they have. I don’t know. You can describe it better than I can, but I will play some audio. I’ll interject it here when I actually produce this episode so that people can hear what it is we’re talking about.

[00:15:52] But can you tell me about the vocalizations of the cranes and, what do they sound like and what purpose do they serve?

[00:15:58] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, sandhill Crane, and I mean the whooping crane too. They, I’ve heard it described a few different ways, like a bugle kind of noise or like a, almost like a flutie rattle is how I would describe it almost. But I think it’s beautiful. Like I know some people are. In this area, the locals sometimes are like, they’re just so loud

[00:16:26] But I think it’s, I think it’s one of the most beautiful calls out of the birds. , and it is a very loud call. You’ll just hear one crane, like flying very high in the sky. sound like it’s really close to you. And so they’re actually able to do that because they have oh,

[00:16:44] I believe they have a four foot long trachea. And so their call gets amplified. And then it’s also like twist. Somehow to be, act almost like a trumpet, so it just like amplifies their call. So it’s very loud , and then when you have hundreds of thousands of them in a single area it’s a sight and a s a sound to behold. But yeah. I’ve also heard it described as a almost prehistoric sound.

[00:17:13] Michael Hawk: I’ve heard people refer to cranes as dinosaur birds or similar or, prehistoric birds. Maybe partly because of the vocalization, but I think they have a very long lineage in the fossil record as well.

[00:17:28] Bethany Ostrom: Cranes are actually one of the oldest bird species. There was a related crane species in the fossil record that’s two and a half million years old. It is thought that cranes are one of the oldest classic birds that we still have today, and so they’re migration is, Ancient tradition. That’s just beautiful

[00:17:52] It’s amazing.

[00:17:53] Michael Hawk: and the amity of it there. There was a guest on the podcast a couple of months ago, Allen Fish, who commented about this concept I hadn’t heard before called Endangered Abundance, where there used to be so many mass migrations or mass congregations of different animals and there, and so few of those exist anymore.

[00:18:16] The Sandhill cranes are one of them. How many come through the Platte River area that you’re at in a given?

[00:18:22] Bethany Ostrom: So there, okay. I have to kind of premise it with some other fun facts. First, worldwide, there’s actually. There’s a minimum. A minimum. Of 1.45 million sandhill cranes, which all the Sandhill cranes are in North America, essentially. And then there’s the mid continental population that migrates through.

[00:18:47] Nebraska in this area, and about 80% of the world’s sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska . So there’s 15 total crane species. Sandhill cranes are. There’s about. 1.45 million of them. And so the remaining 14 species of cranes, their combined total is about equal to the total population of Sandhill cranes in the world.

[00:19:14] And so when you overlay that with the fact that 80% of the sandhill cranes come through Nebraska migration, during peak migration, about 45% of the world’s cranes are in Nebraska.

[00:19:28] Michael Hawk: Wow.

[00:19:30] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. I love that fact. It’s so cool.

[00:19:33] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And. Makes me want to go research some of those other crane species, because I’m gonna guess that there are several that are struggling. Are the Sandhill cranes, are they stable from a conservation standpoint?

[00:19:47] Bethany Ostrom: Oh yeah they’re stable and they’re increasing, but they’re not to like their pre-settlement numbers by any means.

[00:19:54] Michael Hawk: So a visitor that is in the area coming out to To the Crane Trust or the Platte River, and they want to see Sandhill cranes. What should they be looking for? What would they experie?

[00:20:04] Bethany Ostrom: If you’re in the area of the Platte River somewhere, , especially between Grand Island and Kearney, it’s pretty easy to see the Sandhill cranes actually. So just driving down the interstate, you look above you and there’s flocks of hundreds and hundreds flying above you, and you look to your it depends on what direction you’re going, but if you look to your right or left, and you’ll see hundreds and maybe even thousands in the corn fields for. During the day, but the spectacular, I mean, it’s all spectacular, but the most spectacular site is during the morning and the evening when they go from the fields and the meadows. Foraging to the river to roost through the night. And so you just get hundreds of thousands of cranes flying towards the river and landing there.

[00:20:59] Or in the morning, they’re all on the river and then they’re taking off to leave to the fields. And so it really isn’t that hard to see the cranes. You just need to drive around some fields during the day, some corn fields. It is a little bit harder to see the cranes on the river, but if anyone has a chance, that is, it’s definitely worth it.

[00:21:20] Michael Hawk: Yeah. So if you don’t see the crane, Flying overhead,

[00:21:25] Bethany Ostrom: You’ll

[00:21:25] Michael Hawk: you’ll hear them. Yeah.

[00:21:26] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, for sure.

[00:21:28] Michael Hawk: When they come into roost for the evening, are there regular roosting sites that they return to over time or given that it’s a dynamic river system, I’m imagining it changes periodically.

[00:21:37] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so it does change, but not to the level that it really affects where they come to roost. I mean, we can’t say like for certain, but most likely, and from what we know, these cranes do seem to come back to at least a general area that they’ve roosted before in the river. So cranes that have. Migrated through and roosted near the river by Grand Island. We’ll probably do that year after year after year. As long as they have a successful time foraging and not that much predation

[00:22:10] Michael Hawk: No, no reason to move, right? Everything’s good here. We’ll,

[00:22:14] Bethany Ostrom: to move. So yeah they’ll come back. And that’s kind of how it is with.

[00:22:18] They’re wintering and breeding grounds too, to a certain extent. They’ll go back to this, generally the same area year after year.

[00:22:26] Michael Hawk: Are there efforts to use satellite tracking or radio tracking or even maybe traditional banding to draw these conclusions about their migratory habits?

[00:22:37] Bethany Ostrom: So a few years ago there was a pretty big study that looked into. Their migratory patterns. I think that study was published in 2014 and it looked at the years previous. So they radio tagged a bunch of different sandhill cranes, but right now most of our radio tagging effort is focused on whooping cranes.

[00:23:01] So we’re able to track their. A lot more right now.

[00:23:06] Michael Hawk: It all ties together the long legs and the roosting on the river. That makes sense. Like they’re, it just fits now.

[00:23:13] I’m assuming that also provides them some safety from predation

[00:23:17] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s essentially the main reason why they go out into specifically the Platte River. So they have these wide channels that they can stay in and have water surrounding them. And then also, there are thousands of friends and families surrounding them, to protect them from predators, which can consist of coyotes or bobcats.

[00:23:41] Possibly even foxes from time to time. I mean, it doesn’t protect ’em from bald eagles, which actually have been known to go after like the young or the weaker sandhill cranes as well, but roosting and large numbers helps ’em stay safe as well.

[00:23:59] Michael Hawk: Just thinking about Fox or a coyote or some, animal going into the water to go after a Sandhill crane is gonna make a lot of noise. Like a lot of attention will be drawn to that.

[00:24:10] Bethany Ostrom: Yep.

[00:24:11] Michael Hawk: If a if an eagle were to come by, at least I’ve seen this with say, snow geese, where. An eagle will take flight and spook all the geese.

[00:24:19] They all take off at the same time. Do you see similar behaviors with crane?

[00:24:24] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so that does happen from time to time with sandhill cranes. They aren’t as anxious or jumpy as snow geese. We actually saw this just the other morning. There was a bald eagle that flew over the river during the morning roost, and there was a flock of. Snow geese right in front of us. And then Sandhill cranes just everywhere in the river.

[00:24:49] And the bald eagle flushed all of the snow geese and it was a spectacular site. But then only a few sandhill cranes really left. I think they felt pretty safe. The eagle didn’t look like it was too interested in them.

[00:25:04] Michael Hawk: That’s a big meal. That’s a big undertaking for an eagle, even for an eagle

[00:25:08] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah.

[00:25:09] Michael Hawk: And I bet you the sound of those snow geese taking off back to the endangered abundance concept, that was probably quite the sound to hear as well, when they

[00:25:17] took flight.

[00:25:17] Bethany Ostrom: yeah, I love it when there’s mass numbers either taking off or just flying over you. You think of a wing beat as a silent thing. And it is not, especially when there’s those mass congregations of birds, it’s almost thunderous when there’s thousands of birds flying over you.

[00:25:38] Michael Hawk: It is a, I mean, it’s, I don’t have words for the experience. It is an experience that I think everybody should see at some point in their life. We’re talking about Nebraska and it is phenomenal there, especially the snow geese and the cranes in particular. The numbers are just, Crazy, but you can find that in other places throughout the year at different times.

[00:26:01] I know that one of the staging grounds for Sandhill cranes I think Tennessee, there’s a pretty big one.

[00:26:07] Bethany Ostrom: Oh.

[00:26:07] Michael Hawk: The snow geese and some Sandhill cranes will come through the Pacific Flyway too. So we can see that in California. Yeah, just my, I’m urging listeners to find some of these abundant bird congregations near where they live because it is something to see and behold.

[00:26:25] Bethany Ostrom: Absolutely.

[00:26:27] Michael Hawk: how about mating behaviors for cranes? I, are they partaking in any courtship or other activities when they’re on the migratory path, or does that all kind of wait until they reach their breeding?

[00:26:41] Bethany Ostrom: So I, I consider sandhill cranes to always kind of be courting. Each other. Sandhill cranes have lifelong mates, they court for life essentially. And we’ll see courting behavior out on the river or out in the field, and it’s very playful in nature. A lot of people describe it as dancing. So they’ll bow their heads and open their wings and jump around and dance with each other essentially.

[00:27:09] And it really is just adorable to see them doing this dancing playful behavior with each other.

[00:27:16] Michael Hawk: do they do this at the roosting location or while they’re out foraging or both?

[00:27:20] Bethany Ostrom: I mean, it depends on their goal. I mostly see it kind of in the morning when they’re waking up for the day. They might be, stretching their wings and being like, oh, hello, my friend and dancing and jumping around a little bit. But they especially do it out in the fields and the meadows. If they get tired of looking for food, why not pick up a stick and throw it at your mate? They literally do that. Like they’ll pick up a corn cob and throw it in the air and then jump around and it really is just so adorable. These, tall, lanky gray birds are just very cute.

[00:27:59] Michael Hawk: So they mate for life, but if their mate were to perish for some reason, will they remade?

[00:28:05] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so they might for a few years be on their own until they can find a new mate. Occasionally you’ll see a lone Sandhill crane flying around, and that’s probably either a juvenile that hasn’t found a mate yet, or it’s a crane that lost their mate.

[00:28:21] Michael Hawk: So we have listeners here that are from all across the United States and also Europe and other locations. So there are other species of cranes in Europe I know and, and I found in doing research for this episode, I even found the. There’s a species of crane that’s pretty much endemic to Australia, which I had no idea That was a surprising find.

[00:28:43] But one thing that stuck out in my head is I was in Florida and I saw Sandhill cranes just kind of moseying around on a golf course in summer and like Ju July or something like that. What I read, and maybe you can tell me if this is true, is that there’s a subspecies of sandhill cranes that doesn’t migrate and they just hang out in Florida all year.

[00:29:06] Is, are you familiar with those? Is that accurate?

[00:29:09] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so there’s actually three non migratory populations of Sandhill cranes. One’s in Florida one’s in Cuba, and. One is in Mississippi and , the Florida population is actually fairly stable, but the Mississippi and Cuba populations are essentially endangered. I mean, there’s plenty of Sandhill cranes in the world, but the ones that stay in those areas are not doing as.

[00:29:40] Michael Hawk: It’s interesting to think about. I mean, it, it calls into question all of the usual things about labeling species and genetic diversity and so forth. It does make me wonder, Non migratory subspecies given enough time, I guess they will speciate, they will turn into something different unless they’re mixing with the migratory species.

[00:30:00] Do you know, are they pretty much staying separate? I mean, if, if the breeding grounds are so far from each other, it seems like they’re probably separate.

[00:30:06] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, I would think so. Yeah, that is a very good point. I hadn’t really thought about that. Too extensively.

[00:30:12] Michael Hawk: So maybe this is a good segue into some of the other cranes since now we’re talking about subspecies and . All of this fun and there’s so much interest in whooping cranes because they’ve been, I don’t even remember. They were down to tens.

[00:30:26] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, there was 15 or 16 in the 1940s in the world.

[00:30:32] Michael Hawk: which is just crazy to think about. Have you seen the P b s documentary? It was part of the Nature series about the whooping crane recovery program.

[00:30:42] Bethany Ostrom: I. Believe I have. I remember watching a video and it had that guy flying with the whooping

[00:30:48] Michael Hawk: Yeah.

[00:30:49] Bethany Ostrom: I haven’t seen it recently. I also was an avid watcher of nature on P B s when I was a little kid, so I wouldn’t doubt if I’ve seen that

[00:30:58] Michael Hawk: Such a great show and I can still hear f Murray Abraham. He was the narrator in a lot of those shows. I can hear his voice, but I’ll try to link to that. I’m sure it’s out there floating around on the internet somewhere. But I highly recommend, it’s just a really fun, enlightening.

[00:31:15] Story about the effort it’s taken to help recover the cranes, but rather than redirecting people to that. Let’s talk a little bit about it now. What’s the current state of whooping cranes?

[00:31:27] Bethany Ostrom: Whooping cranes are still endangered in the wild population. There’s around 570 individuals, I believe, in the only self-sustaining, wild population of whooping cranes. The Aransas wood Buffalo population. So they breed up in that area. Canada, and then they also migrate through the Central Platte River Valley as well.

[00:31:51] And then there’s two populations in the south that they’re trying to reintroduce that I believe are around 150 cranes. Those populations are not self-sustaining, so they’re continuously trying to reintroduce more individuals to that, those populations. I think altogether there’s somewhere around 800 whooping cranes in the world right now, which I mean is still, not enough to be considered.

[00:32:18] Not endangered. But it’s a huge success story from, the 15 to 16 that were here in the 1940s. And so if the efforts we’ve been applying keep on being successful and these populations keep on increasing, maybe eventually these whooping cranes can be taken off the endangered species list. day is not today.

[00:32:46] Michael Hawk: Yeah, it has been an amazing story. A lot of effort, captive breeding programs, migratory assistance, like lots of interesting things, , that have been going

[00:32:55] on,

[00:32:56] Bethany Ostrom: They’ve had to be pretty, pretty creative with their methods of helping these whooping cranes out, like dressing all in white, looking like a whooping crane while feeding the captive birds. Like it’s quite humorous, really cool

[00:33:09] Michael Hawk: Yeah, on a lot of different levels. , it sounds like , you do have whooping cranes coming through your area fairly consistently then though The numbers are very.

[00:33:17] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so we’ll typically have a few individuals that come through early mid-March and then mid-March into late March, they’ll be a few more individuals. During the spring, so it seems like there’s always maybe one or two around. Every once in a while we get like a flush of maybe a lar, a larger family or two families of whooping cranes coming through the area.

[00:33:42] Michael Hawk: And what does whooping crane look like? How does it compare to the Sandhill?

[00:33:46] Bethany Ostrom: So whooping cranes are actually the tallest bird in North America. So Sandhill cranes, they can be anywhere from three to four feet. Whooping cranes are closer to four, four and a half feet tall. They are distinctly white. So a lot of times, based on how the sun is, even, I get confused.

[00:34:06] I’m like, oh, there’s a whooper. It’s a. Flying with all the Sandhills those are like our nicknames for the cranes. , whooper, and Sandhills. Once you see a whooping crane, it is just very distinctly white, much larger. It stands a head tall above all the sandhill cranes. Their head coloration is a little more distinguished, so they have a black and a red coloration on their cap.

[00:34:30] Michael Hawk: So sun reflection aside, , I guess if you’re looking at, one standing on the ground it’s probably pretty obvious that it’s a whooper .

[00:34:37] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. The real fun comes in when we get what we call a leucistic Sandhill

[00:34:42] Michael Hawk: Oh wow.

[00:34:43] Bethany Ostrom: And so that’s like a variation of albinism. So we’ll be staring at this white Sandhill crane and we’re like, It’s white, but it’s not big enough to be a whooping crane. What could it be? And then we’re like, oh, it’s a leucistic Sandhill crane.

[00:34:58] So there can be some confusion. And of course there’s variations in the shades of gray and all that, but yeah, once you see it, you’re like, oh, that’s a whooping crane

[00:35:08] Michael Hawk: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good point too. There’s been, anecdotally it seems like more and more leucistic birds across many different species, and I hadn’t even thought about that. And maybe just because everybody has a camera these days.

[00:35:20] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah.

[00:35:21] Michael Hawk: And in terms of the habitat requirements for whooping cranes is it similar you, I guess you did mention earlier that they’re a little bit more carnivorous than the Sandhill.

[00:35:32] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. So I mean, their habitat requirements are pretty similar to Sandhill cranes. They might be a little more picky to urban development or agricultural development areas. But yeah, so they’re a little more picky with the level of disturbance that they tolerate. But they also roost on the river and then they go out into the corn fields.

[00:35:54] They still eat corn for that high caloric energy. But then when they go out into the wet meadows, they eat more vertebrates. So they’ll actually eat like snakes and frogs and toads also eat. Macro invertebrates to snails, crustaceans, mollusks, stuff like that. And in the river they’ll actually fish as well.

[00:36:16] We’ve seen ’em catch fish, which is pretty fun, especially when they have a little colt with them. The colt is a juvenile crane and they’re trying to teach the colt how to fish and it’s just not getting it. And , it’s pretty fun to watch.

[00:36:31] Michael Hawk: So I can draw some hypotheses or maybe just guesses as to why the whooping cranes are struggling more than Sandhill cranes. But what is the thought on that? Why are they struggling so much?

[00:36:44] Bethany Ostrom: They weren’t as numerous as Sandhill cranes from the get-go. Pre-settlement, there was probably somewhere around 10,000, plus or minus a few thousand whooping cranes total. And so they do. Had a lot lower population to start with and so settlement times come around and there’s a lot of hunting and expansion of towns and farmsteads and destruction of their foraging sites and roosting sites, and so they were just a, yeah, a lot more sensitive to those, that habitat destruction and the hunting and the poaching that happened,

[00:37:21] Michael Hawk: and the hunting was primarily for food.

[00:37:24] Bethany Ostrom: I believe. I’ve heard two things about Sandhill Cranes. So Sandhill Crane is actually hunted in all of the states on its migratory route except for Nebraska. And we do that for two reasons. One, because Sandhill Crane viewing brings in such, or a huge amount of of money through ecotourism, but also it’s just they’re all concentrated right here.

[00:37:47] So hunting them almost wouldn’t even be a sport. So I’ve heard that Sandhill cranes are the ribeye of the sky. And then I’ve also heard that they really don’t taste very good, but . And so there are instances even today where poaching happens or just accidental shootings. People think it’s a sandhill somehow.

[00:38:08] Michael Hawk: Yeah, makes sense. In settlement times in particular, you would look for easy sources of food, and having a bunch of cranes standing around in a reliable roosting site. If a population is small, yes, it’s pretty easy to. Connect those dots and see how they become endangered. .

[00:38:24] You hit it on a few of these points already, but for people coming to see this spectacle that is the Sandhill Crane migration, how much longer do they have before the cranes start to take off and.

[00:38:37] Bethany Ostrom: Today, it’s the 14th of March, so it’s about mid-March. Peak migration. So when there’s the most sandhill cranes here at one time will probably happen next week. Then those numbers will start to dwindle. But honestly, there’s large numbers of cranes here until mid-April. We consider our crane season from mid-February to mid-April, so there’s still time to see the Sandhill Crane.

[00:39:05] Michael Hawk: and I’m gonna do my best to get this episode turned around as quickly as possible. So any, anyone who is teetering on the edge of wanting to go look that, that hopefully they’ll hear this and this will be the nudge that they

[00:39:16] need. And what about fall migration? Do they come back or do they just pass right over?

[00:39:22] Maybe it’s somewhere in between. I don’t know.

[00:39:25] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, it is a little bit in between. So fall migration they do come through. We do get pretty large numbers, but it is nowhere near the numbers we get in the spring. In the spring, 80% of the world’s population of Sandhill cranes literally comes through like this a hundred mile stretch of the Platte River.

[00:39:43] But in the fall they spread out a little bit more. They don’t have the same nutritional needs. They’re not going to a place to expend a lot of energy to breed. They’re just going to their wintering grounds where they can still get more food and

[00:39:58] Michael Hawk: probably a little less urgency to heading back south.

[00:40:01] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. And so they spread out a little bit more in their fall migration. They don’t come through as narrow of a.

[00:40:08] Michael Hawk: And are there any special events or guided tours or anything like that the Crane Trust or your partners provide that people might want to look into?

[00:40:18] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah all through the month of March the Crane Trust, and then also. Our friends up at Rowe Sanctuary closer to Kearney. We do guided tours of the morning and evening roosting times. And so that’s a awesome way to be able to actually experience the cranes on the river which is just spectacular.

[00:40:38] We also just provide a lot of information for people. Aren’t here for a tour a guided tour. They can, we can show them the areas that are the best to go drive around and look in the fields, or we have some walking trails and I know Ra Rowe Sanctuary does as well, where they can walk around and just enjoy the nature that we have.

[00:40:59] Michael Hawk: I will of course link to both of those locations so people can easily. Before we get into the wrap up questions, I remember something we were chatting a little bit about before we started. How do you assess the number of cranes that are in the area? That sounds like a major undertaking if you have 85% of the of the cranes in the vicinity.

[00:41:19] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so we actually do these aerial surveys. So we get into this little four-person plane and we fly over this 80 mile stretch of the Platte River parallel to. The river on one of the banks about seven, 800 feet up in the air. And we get to our starting point at crack of, Dawn, right at the first light and fly over the river and essentially estimate how many cranes are in each roost on the river.

[00:41:52] So a group of cranes on the river is what we consider a roost. So we take GPS points of all these roosts. Off like within five seconds having to come up with how many are in. Concentrated little area. And so we start with a group of 10 and we extrapolate that out to 50 and then 50 to a hundred and a hundred, 200, 304, and 500 and 500,000 until you cover that whole roost.

[00:42:16] And you have to do that within split seconds cuz the next roost is right next to it, especially during peak. We actually just had our fifth flight of the season this morning, so I’m a little brain dead from that. Yeah. So we do. Throughout the whole stretch of the river. And occasionally we’ll take pictures then write down what roof’s number goes with that picture.

[00:42:37] And then we’ll go back into the office and we’ll actually count every single crane to give us a bias estimate to see how far we were off in general, and then we’ll apply that to our counts.

[00:42:47] Michael Hawk: Do you that like the your brain tends to underestimate or overestimate I’m curious where the bias tends to.

[00:42:54] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, so most people that have done it in the past, which is not very many people tend to underestimate. And so last week on our account I actually overestimated quite a bit. But luckily I was able to get those pictures and to correct for my bias. This week. I think I figured it out and I’m, this week I think I got a little more in the groove and I’m a little closer to accurate now.

[00:43:19] Michael Hawk: It is harder than it sounds, I’m sure because the numbers are just, So big and you’re flying. You can’t tell the pilot to slow down. , that’s not gonna work.

[00:43:28] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah, and especially if there’s a tailwind coming at us, like we’re just zooming along this, like we have to fly 80 miles in like an hour and 15 minutes. So yeah, we try to go as slow as we can, but

[00:43:39] Michael Hawk: You can’t break the laws of physics.

[00:43:41] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah.

[00:43:43] Michael Hawk: So I’m curious, thinking back, do you have any top of head events or encounters there, anything that really stand out to you as escalating your interest for the natural world?

[00:43:53] Bethany Ostrom: Like I said before, ever since I was little, I’ve always been interested in animals and wildlife and being out in nature, but my desire to really care for. Nature and care for the natural world really grew. When I realized that my faith called for us to care for the natural world, that it wasn’t just about, doing something that I enjoyed and was interested in, it served a higher purpose.

[00:44:21] That’s where my desire and emphasis to do this and to dedicate my life to it really flourished.

[00:44:28] Michael Hawk: That’s great. I’d love to hear that. And so happy that you found this path then. So if people wanted to learn more about cranes what would you recommend they do? Where can they go?

[00:44:38] Bethany Ostrom: There’s lots of resources, out in, on the internet and our website at Crane Trust has a lot of information as well as, Rowe Sanctuary Audubon. But then there’s been some recent documentaries that the Crane Trust in particular has been part of. One in particular that comes to mind is called the Nature Makers.

[00:44:57] There’s three segments in that documentary, but one of them is dedicated to the Sandhill cranes and the work we do to help preserve the land that they use on their migration.

[00:45:07] Michael Hawk: Great. I’ll try to find that out there somewhere on the internet and point people towards it. And do you have any upcoming projects or anything else personally or as part of the Crane Trust that you’d like to point people towards?

[00:45:21] Bethany Ostrom: We’re such a small team here at the Crane Trust. I mean relative to a lot of other larger organizations, conservation organizations, but we’re always working on , a plethora of different research on the ecology of the Platte River specifically. I know I personally will be working on Breeding grassland bird papers and research here pretty shortly.

[00:45:46] That will take up a lot of my time. But yeah, we’re always working on something that’s interesting to somebody, and you can find all that information on our website as well.

[00:45:57] Michael Hawk: That’s probably an excellent lead in as to where can people follow you or your work? You mentioned the website. Can you give the whole URL and maybe other places people could go?

[00:46:06] Bethany Ostrom: It’s just crane trust.org. For our organization’s website. And then we also have social media platforms. Like we have an account on Instagram and Facebook that you can follow and interact with and we try to post on there pretty regularly, especially in March when there’s a lot of interest,

[00:46:25] Michael Hawk: So Bethany, thank you again for imparting all of this knowledge on us today and taking the time, and I appreciate you and the crane. Trust in the work that you do.

[00:46:36] Bethany Ostrom: Yeah. Thank you so much for having an interest in sharing this with everyone else.

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