This swampy paradise is Alabama’s winter haven for sandhill cranes

A large group of sandhill cranes stand in shallow water and on dirt peninsulas in a swamp area.

Sandhill cranes gather at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Ala.

Laure Friedman

This story is part of a monthly series called Outdoor Connections, which features stories that explore the biodiversity of Alabama and how we depend on it.

Walking along the gravel paths of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, park ranger David Young looks to the sky as a flock of sandhill cranes soars overhead, emitting a loud chorus of sounds. 

“I just love that call. It’s very dinosaur-like,” Young said. 

With a wingspan that measures up to five feet, sandhill cranes typically have gray feathers, with a bright red patch on their foreheads. 

As the birds fly in unison, they stretch out their long thin necks and point their skinny legs behind them, enjoying a chilly day on the swampy refuge in Decatur. 

“We have three things that they really like,” Young said. “We have water. We have open fields that are relatively undisturbed. And we have the groceries. We have the food.” 

With 35,000 acres nestled near the Tennessee River, Wheeler staff work with cooperative farmers to grow crops like corn, leaving behind a portion for the cranes to forage. 

The refuge is home to hundreds of diverse species of birds, fish, reptiles, mussels and more. But the cranes bring the crowds. 

As many as 25,000 sandhills migrate to Wheeler every winter, along with a handful of highly endangered whooping cranes. 

Nature enthusiasts can visit the refuge throughout the season to catch a glimpse of the tall waterfowl. But the annual Crane Festival, hosted with assistance from the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association, is set aside every January to observe and celebrate the birds. 

People gather by a glass paneled window in an observation room to see cranes.
Spectators gather in an observation room at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Alberto Enes Romero

“It’s been great,” said nine-year-old Lara Badri of Nashville, who attended the festival with her family. “I saw a lot of sandhills. But I’ve been trying to see whooping cranes.”

Compared to the sandhills, whooping cranes are about a foot taller, with bright white feathers. And they’re much less common. 

Highly endangered, there are approximately 836 whooping cranes in the world, according to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a non-profit that works to protect and reintroduce the species worldwide. Current numbers, while low, reflect decades of conservation efforts, rebounding from a population of fewer than 20 birds in 1941.

A white whooping crane takes flight as four gray sandhill cranes stand in the background
A whooping crane takes flight as sandhill cranes stand in the background in Michigan. Photo by Jim Hudgins/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Once I heard they actually got revived by scientists, I’ve always wanted to see one,” Badri said.

This year, 13 of the rare birds have been spotted on the refuge, a few less than past seasons. 

Legina Jenkins, a volunteer with ICF, spends the winter months driving across north Alabama looking for the whooping cranes. She knows each bird’s quirks. 

“There’s four of them that stay together. I refer to them as the fab four,” Jenkins said. “Then there’s one that stays at the visitors center all by herself with the sandhills. And then there’s another pair that stays in a real secluded area. They don’t like company. They stay real isolated.”

Jenkins said one of the female cranes returned this year without her mate, who appears to have gone missing during migration. 

“We’re really afraid that something’s happened to him, but we don’t know for sure,” Jenkins said.

Both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes typically mate for life, and they both have a robust collection of dance moves they use to communicate.

The refuge is equipped with outdoor viewing platforms, boardwalks and an indoor observation deck for visitors to observe the birds in action. 

While spotting a whooping crane is difficult, bird watchers are rewarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of sandhill cranes that gather together across miles of wetlands. 

“There’s a lot of them,” said Danielle Ford of Harvest. “I was interested to see, when we were driving up, the big flock of them. I was like ‘wow.’ I hadn’t seen that many at one time.”

A gif shows video of a group of sandhill cranes in a grassy area.
Sandhill Cranes are seen through a tower viewer at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Video by Alberto Enes Romero

Sandhill cranes are numerous now, with more than 500,000 birds worldwide, but the species was also once near extinction, the result of habitat loss and overhunting about a century ago. 

The species recovered thanks to conservation efforts, so much so that a few years ago, Alabama reinstated a sandhill hunting season, although no hunting is allowed on the refuge. 

Both the sandhill and the whooping cranes are expected to stay at Wheeler for a few more weeks before heading back north. 

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