We wait in the dark, huddled in a wooden blind. It is quiet except for the occasional rustling of feathers and nylon jackets, a few whispers and low croaks. As darkness gives way to dawn, we see tall birds in silhouette against water and sky, just a few at first and then more as the sun rises. We are entranced as we gaze upon endless numbers of sandhill cranes waking up on the islands and sandbars in the Platte River as their species has done each spring for countless generations. We know we are witnessing one of nature’s greatest gatherings of birds anywhere in the world.
Each spring, between 12,000 and 15,000 people travel to central Nebraska and, in particular, to Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, to see the spectacular migration of more than 500,000 sandhill cranes, about 80 percent of their population in North America.
“Visitors come from all 50 states and 50 different countries including Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal,” said Bill Taddicken, Rowe Sanctuary director. “They watch cranes from the blinds, but they also walk the trails, participate in crane programs and volunteer at the Sanctuary.”
The Nature Conservancy also has crane viewing blinds, which attract Conservancy members from all over the United States.
These traveling bird lovers are not only embracing the natural beauty of the outdoors and birds, they are pumping much-needed revenue into local economies.
In 2009, economics professors Richard Edwards and Eric Thompson authored a University of Nebraska-Lincoln report on the economic impact of the Rowe Sanctuary and sandhill crane migration on the Central Nebraska region. They concluded that, along with Rowe Sanctuary and other conservation centers that offer crane-watching opportunities, bird-watchers brought $10.33 million into central Nebraska's economy that year.
Prairie Chickens Attract Visitors and Revenue
Six hundred miles north at Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge near Crookston, Minnesota, another bird is attracting crowds and revenue. The greater prairie chicken, a rare bird now found in just a few states, is best known for its flamboyant mating dance.
Male prairie chickens gather on a communal lek, or booming ground, where they display for females. Inflating the orange sacs on the sides of their throats and raising feathers above their heads like horns, they rush about, leap in the air and utter a deep, mournful cry like a bagpipe. They are deadly serious, but their antics elicit smiles and laughs from visitors who climb into plywood boxes in the dark to wait for sunrise when they witness another one of nature’s remarkable moments.
The Crookston Chamber of Commerce takes reservations for the blinds, and Tourism Coordinator Sandy Kegler says the economic impact from the prairie chickens “is incredible for Crookston.”
“Spring is usually a slow time in Crookston in terms of tourism,” Kegler commented. “But we’ve noticed a marked increase in taxes collected on hotels and other lodging in April and May when visitors come to see the prairie chickens. They’re also buying gas and eating in restaurants, all of which benefits Crookston’s economy.”
“When we purchased the land at Glacial Ridge in 2000 and began restoration efforts, we knew it would not only provide environmental benefits, but economic and social ones as well,” said Peggy Ladner, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s work in Minnesota. “Protecting and restoring our lands and waters is a wise investment in Minnesota’s economy and is critical for species like the prairie chicken that rely on open grassland habitat for their survival.”
In addition to cranes and prairie chickens, states across the U.S. hold bird festivals and other events to celebrate eagles, swans and many other bird species. All of which means big business to local economies. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report found that 48 million people engaged in birding in 2006, generating a whopping $82 million in total industry output, sustaining 671,000 jobs and creating $11 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue.
Birders Also Support Conservation
Back on the Platte, the cranes have left their roosting spot on the river and are feeding, loafing and socializing in nearby corn fields and wet meadows. Visitors follow, driving the roads to take photos and marvel at their beauty and seemingly infinite numbers.
Some of the revenue generated by tourism during the cranes’ spring migration is helping to protect the habitat they need along the Platte.
Over the past century, water has been diverted from the Platte River for agricultural irrigation, power production and urban and other uses. The historical spring pulse of water that once kept willows, cottonwoods, Phragmites and other vegetation from overtaking islands and sandbars has been reduced dramatically. Rowe Sanctuary, The Nature Conservancy and others manually remove the vegetation to keep the cranes’ roost open, which is a time-consuming and expensive effort.
A cooperative program that involves government, water users and conservation groups such as the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, is looking at ways to make more water available in the Platte River at times when wildlife can use it and provide more acres for habitat along the river. Which is not only good news for sandhill cranes, but for the people who love to watch them!