Study: Whooping crane crowding shows habitat need in Nebraska, Kansas

STAFFORD, Kan. – A new study highlights the need for conservation work in the southern Great Plains by Ducks Unlimited and partners, DU said in a recent news release.

Using data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), researchers from the Crane Trust, FWS and the International Crane Foundation documented larger groups of endangered whooping cranes congregating along the center of their migration path, particularly in the southern great plains. While a positive sign of species recovery, the study authors say disease outbreaks or extreme weather could cause a catastrophic loss of the crane’s current population.

“A lot of Ducks Unlimited projects in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin and along the Platte River are stop-over sites for whooping cranes. Other wetland complexes where DU has done extensive restoration work, including Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, are some of the sites where large groups have been regularly spotted,” DU Manager of Kansas Conservation Programs Matt Hough said. “This is a validation of our wetland work in those areas.”

Andrew Caven, co-author of the study, says cranes have generally traveled in family groups, but group sizes have increased over the last 20 years, as the species has recovered.

“Groups of more than seven to 10 have increased as a proportion of total groups detected and at a rate that exceeds population growth,” Caven said. “Large groups crowding into wetland areas show up particularly in the southern great plains, where wetland habitat loss is the most pronounced along the migration corridor.”

Caven says some behavioral patterns may be contributing to the frequency of large whooping cranes gatherings, as they were also detected, albeit less frequently, in the Dakotas where wetland habitat is largely available.

“When whooping cranes were close to extinction, it may have limited their social behaviors. Now we have seen groups of up to 150, which likely improves their ability to find good forage areas and helps protect them from predators,” Caven said. “They are likely using each other as indicators of habitat and forage quality in places where resources are unevenly distributed and they can eat more when they benefit from the vigilance of the group to predators and other risks. However, with groups of that size, and a total of 500 in the last remaining wild flock, disease or bad weather could quickly wipe out a significant percentage of the population.”

Caven says they have seen large groups gathering where Ducks Unlimited has done restoration in the southern great plains and further work near these sites would likely help disperse the birds by providing them quality alternatives where little remain. Hough says Ducks Unlimited is working with partners to restore wetlands at national wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas, and private lands lying within these critical wetland complexes.

“DU has focused its work in the places where the most birds stop and rest along their journey. We are working to create larger, more numerous and more functional wetland areas that will help guarantee the needs of these and other wildlife are met,” he said.

In Nebraska, Ducks Unlimited focused on the Rainwater Basin and Platte River where millions of birds rest and refuel each spring and fall.

“Birds coming from their wintering habitat funnel through this area on their way to nesting grounds utilizing the remaining Platte River and Rainwater Basin habitat,” said John Denton, DU manager of conservation programs for Nebraska. “DU and its partners have protected, restored and enhanced 150,190 acres in Nebraska since we began our work there in 1985, but this study shows there is more work to be done.”

To ensure there is a greater distribution of wetland areas each spring in Nebraska, DU and partners launched a Rainwater Basin Development Fund campaign to increase conservation of one of the continent’s most critical migration habitats. DU also has the Bring Back the Bottoms campaign in Kansas to support increased wetland restoration and enhancement at the Cheyenne Bottoms complex, which is also a site large whooping crane groups have regularly been detected.

— Ducks Unlimited

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