Sandhill cranes are majestic gray birds with crimson crowns and wing spans of up to six feet. Each winter, many gather in the fields of California’s Central Valley. There, rice farmers flood their fields to break down the post-harvest stubble, and the cranes use the fields to roost.


Zeleke: “They can feel the vibration of any predators that come across the water, so they spend the night standing in water. But during the day, they then forage out from these roosting spots to the surrounding croplands to find leftover grains that they can eat.”

That’s Dawit Zeleke of The Nature Conservancy. His group operates a 9,000-acre ranch in the valley.

Zeleke: “This year, we’ve had up to eleven-thousand cranes roosting which is pretty amazing. It’s the most we’ve seen of any year that we’ve been counting, and we think some of that is related to the fact that there’s the drought.”

Zeleke says farmers grew less rice last season because of the drought, forcing the cranes into a smaller number of fields.

Scientists expect droughts to become more common as the climate warms. So farmers and conservationists will have to work together to meet the needs of agriculture and preserve critical habitat for these remarkable birds.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo source: Sandhill cranes (Wikipedia).

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Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...