Rise of the Cranes | SteamboatToday.com

Rise of the Cranes

From near and far, craniacs converge on the Yampa Valley to bring to light one of the planet's oldest and most unique birds

Austin Colbert

— Any doubts about the prehistoric nature of the greater sandhill crane fly the coop when you first hear its call.

The sound is deep and reverberating, its spiraling trachea creating one of the most unique sounds in the bird kingdom.

"They have this incredible call," said Nancy Merrill, co-founder and president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition. "Once you've heard the call, you'll never forget it."

On late-summer mornings, often before the sun rises above the mountains, the greater sandhill cranes flock to farmland in the Yampa Valley, where their call will wake all but the most hardy of sleepers. There, the birds gather for their first meal of the day, a daily ritual as much about socializing as dining.

Merrill, who resides on the Yampavian Ranch, near Hayden, has a front-row seat to the camaraderie and commotion that comes when dozens of cranes arrive on her property each day. A passionate birder and devoted "craniac," Merrill is much more than a staunch fan of the local population of sandhill cranes. She is a true champion in their ongoing fight for survival.

It was Merrill, along with fellow craniac Barb Hughes, who created the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2012 — a now annual event that celebrates the lives of these magnificent birds.

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"The people I work with are amazing, and people like Nancy Merrill, who is on our board, are the true inspiration," said Kate Fitzwilliams, development officer for the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. "She is passionate about saving habitat, about teaching people to love cranes and love why they are important, why rivers are important, and why something so beautiful affects so many things in our environment."

GETTING FESTIVE ABOUT CRANES

The bird festival phenomenon is about 25 years old, with about 20 taking place in Colorado each year. Of those, two are devoted exclusively to the sandhill cranes, one of 15 species of cranes found worldwide. The older Monte Vista Crane Festival takes place each March — with a smaller kids' festival in October — in the San Luis Valley, an important migratory stop for the birds.

The Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which held its fourth event Sept. 10 to 14 in Steamboat Springs and Hayden, is one of the newer bird festivals in the country. And despite its youth, it has already built a reputation as one of the best.

"I think part of it has to do with the whole spirited place of the area," said Ted Floyd, a Boulder resident and editor of Birding magazine. "It's a part of Colorado that is really striking because it's out on the West Slope and you have this really lush Yampa River Valley."

Floyd, along with keynote speaker Paul Tebbel, of the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in California, was one of the featured speakers at the Yampa Valley Crane Festival this year. The five-day event, centered on Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat, was a showcase of all things cranes, including educational crane displays, activities for children, film screenings, workshops, and of course, crane viewing opportunities throughout the valley.

"I've been to many of them, and this is one of the best. The community is incredibly welcoming," Tebbel said of the festival. "I was very intrigued by the fact this festival was in what I would call a northern breeding area. A lot of the festivals are in areas where the cranes spend the winter. This one was going to be in an area where they nested, and that meant what we would see would be different."

Tebbel, Floyd and local retired biologist Van Graham led most of the crane viewing tours, which often took participants to private land located between Steamboat and Hayden. Tebbel has spent the better part of 39 years working with cranes, going back to his days an as undergraduate student in Michigan. The bulk of his work has been with the lesser sandhill cranes in Nebraska, one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes.

"He's worked in this field forever, and it's as if he just saw a crane for the first time," Hughes said about Tebbel.

CHARASMATIC MEGA FAUNA

Cranes are big birds. The greater sandhill cranes, the largest of the sandhill crane species, can grow up to 5 feet in height and have a wingspan of seven feet. They are gray in color, with distinctive red feathering on their heads, leading to a long, sharp beak, which can be used as a weapon.

Cranes are also social birds. They dance, they call to each other, and they rarely spend time alone. For this reason, Tebbel likes to use the term "charismatic mega fauna" to describe them.

"If I show you a four-foot tall bird in the middle of the field that can bellow out a call that you can hear a mile and a half away," Tebbel said, "and start to tell you some things about it, I think I can spark your interest, even if you don't care anything about birds."

Sandhill cranes have been on the planet for nearly nine million years, according to fossil evidence found in Nebraska, making them one of the oldest known bird species in the world. Of the 15 species found worldwide, only two live in North America: the sandhill crane and the whooping crane.

Sandhill cranes are the most abundant cranes on the planet, with a population of about 650,000. The whooping crane is the rarest, with less than 600 in existence, including those in captivity. In 1973, sandhill cranes were listed as an endangered species by the state of Colorado, but extensive studies and conservation efforts since have allowed them to thrive.

"It's a species of special concern still," said Graham, who moved to Steamboat in 1976 and spent much of his career working with cranes as a biologist for what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Populations seem to be doing really well. It seems to be expanding."

CONTINUING THE FIGHT

Merrill and her fellow craniacs had talked about creating a festival in honor of the cranes for years. Everything finally came together in 2012 as part of a response to a proposal to allow hunting of sandhill cranes in Northwest Colorado, which did not pass.

The Yampa Valley is prime breeding ground for a local population of Rocky Mountain greater sandhill cranes, of which there are about 20,000. Much of the flock is hatched here in Routt County, with California Park, located approximately 20 miles north of Hayden, hosting the largest nesting population in Colorado.

After hatching in the early parts of spring, the cranes grow quickly and can fly within a couple of months. The cranes migrate south to "staging areas" in September, which is where the local crane festival attendees saw them, before moving temporarily to southern Colorado for about a month. By the time winter hits, the cranes are mostly in New Mexico, their winter home. They'll return to the Yampa Valley in March.

"In wetlands, cranes are a flagship species," Fitzwilliams said. "So when you see a crane in a wetland, you know that wetland is healthy. If the crane is not there, you know something is not right with that wetland."

Merrill and the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition understand how important the cranes are to the local ecosystem. Though sandhill crane numbers are strong in comparison to the rest of the crane species — most of which are endangered or threatened — they still sit on a delicate perch.

This year, Merrill helped start a new program through the CCCC called "Crops for Cranes." Sandhill cranes feed mostly on grain crops, which have decreased significantly in the Yampa Valley. According to Merrill, there was about 85,000 acres of grain crops — like wheat, oat and barley — in the valley in the 1940s, and today, there is less than 10,000 acres.

"Our concern is if these small grain crops continue to decrease in our valley, that the cranes will disperse. They won’t stay here," Merrill said. "The reason we have them here is largely the Yampa River and the irrigated meadows, which provide wonderful foraging for them."

The idea behind Crops for Cranes is to plant small fields of grain crops, in cooperation with local farmers and ranchers, exclusively for the cranes to use. The program started with two different areas in the valley this season, and Merrill hopes to have 100 acres planted by next year to keep the cranes returning to the valley.

"People need to be aware of some of the dangers that face the bird," Merrill said. "The primary objective is to help the cranes, but the secondary objective is to provide places where we can bring people during the crane festival to really see them up close and personal."

For more information on cranes and the work of the CCCC, visit coloradocranes.net.

To reach Austin Colbert, call 970-871-4204, email acolbert@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Austin_Colbert

CRANE FACTS

There are 15 species of cranes in the world, four of which are either endangered or critically endangered. Seven other species are listed as vulnerable.

North America is home to two cranes species: the whooping crane and the sandhill crane. The whooping crane is the least populous crane in the world, with less than 600 existing, including those in captivity. However, the whooping crane is trending upward. The sandhill crane is the most populous crane in the world, with an estimated 650,000 living in the wild.

The sandhill crane comes in six subspecies, one of which is the greater sandhill crane, found in Colorado. Routt County and the Yampa Valley is an important breeding ground for the Rocky Mountain greater sandhill crane population, which numbers about 20,000.

Sandhill cranes are believed to be one of the oldest known bird species still surviving today. In Nebraska, a Miocene crane fossil was found and is thought to be between 9 and 10 million years old. Structurally, the fossil is identical to modern day sandhill cranes.

Greater sandhill cranes are among the largest birds on the planet, sometimes reaching a height of five feet, with a wingspan of seven feet. They can weigh upwards of 14 pounds.

Sandhill cranes have many “human” qualities, such as communication, dancing, strong parental skills. They also mate for life.

Sandhill cranes feed mostly on grain crops, such as wheat and barley. Despite what many think, Colorado cranes are not known to eat fish and will not spend time in deeper water, including that of the Yampa River, as they cannot swim.

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