What we know – and some good news! 

During our recent Festival of the Cranes, we heard several questions and comments about the number of birds on the refuge.

There seem to be fewer sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache this season – is everything okay?

I see lots of birds in other areas; I just want to understand what’s happening, and what’s being done about it. 

First and foremost, we completely understand why you are concerned. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a treasured landscape. So cherished, in fact, that many of us who have returned to the refuge year after year to experience its wonder and breathtaking beauty feel a sense of profound responsibility and ownership of it. You know deep in your heart what it means to be a true Friend of the refuge – and we at Friends of Bosque del Apache are committed to being good friends to you as well.

To address the growing interest and conjecture about the number of cranes present on the refuge, the Friends have spent much effort working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other external experts, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to provide the most precise answer we can. Although this is an intricate and ever-changing picture, the information they have gathered can help all of us better understand what is happening, what could be expected in the future, and most important: understand the best areas to fund the refuge and assist with research.

What We Know For Sure

The Corn Crop at the Refuge was Poor

A tractor mows through a field of triticale on Bosque del Apache NWR as a huge flock of cranes looks on - December 2022 Photo: Susan J. Preston, Sandhill Cranes, Winter Wings

A tractor mows through a field of triticale on Bosque del Apache NWR as a huge flock of cranes looks on. Photograph: Susan J. Preston, December 2022

Although the refuge staff put intensive effort into growing this year’s corn crop, it failed due to a few factors, including poor soil quality. As a result, a task force, including independent sources, is looking at how we can improve soil fertility for future seasons.

Fortunately, our feathered friends aren’t picky eaters – an attribute which has helped them survive for millions of years. Cranes happily gobble up triticale, milo, sorghum, and sudan, which are drought-tolerant grains successfully grown in Bosque del Apache. Additionally, many food sources that don’t require labor-intensive farming are also available in abundance to the cranes at the refuge in the thousands of acres managed as moist soil units, including chufa, tubers, roots, worms, snails, and even frogs and insects.

Funding research in the areas of regenerative agriculture and hydrology is a high priority for the Friends. Soon, key talks from Festival of the Cranes will be available for public viewing on our website, including the keynote presentation Wetlands are Magic, with Barnaby Briggs, Chair of Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, UK, and the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor Method, with Dr. David C. Johnson.

Your continued support is helping the Friends create real impact as the federal government partners with experts to find ways to grow crops that are drought-tolerant and do not require the use of dangerous herbicides.

Food Resources Have Shifted

The availability of food sources, both to the north and south of the refuge, are increasing as corn and other forage resources are increasing throughout their range. Sandhill cranes are very opportunistic and will take food when and where they find it.

Sandhills Just Want to Be Comfortable

Just like us, the birds hang out where they feel most at ease, sometimes choosing to feed and roost on land inaccessible to humans, both on and off the refuge. Although Bosque del Apache is extensively managed, with fields and ponds along public routes, it’s important to provide the birds as wild a landscape as possible. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby.

On the refuge, there are many areas managed for cranes and other waterfowl which are not on the Auto Tour Route.  These refuge areas offer birds quiet feeding and roosting sanctuaries away from any disturbances.

Migratory Delays and *Flight Cancellations*

The warming climate is delaying the timing of the sandhill migration. Indeed, starting in 2014 some cranes have remained close to their migration staging areas in Colorado and Utah for longer, choosing to remain due to bountiful conditions, including increased corn production and open water.

Water Availability

Although the amount of water on the refuge doesn’t appear to be a factor this winter season, it is an area of critical attention as biologists utilize available resources responsibly. This year, most if not all of returning visitors were excited to discover a favorite pond on Hwy 1, the Wetland Roost, was flooded again this year, providing one of the most picturesque roosting areas in the entire flyway.

Bird Populations are Good, and Healthy!

Happy and healthy sandhill cranes on the refuge, December 2022. Photo: Hillary Bralove

Happy and healthy sandhill cranes on the refuge, December 2022. Photo: Hillary Bralove

Although Bosque del Apache no longer posts specific bird counts in the Visitor Center, USFWS does publish a Sandhill Crane Status Report annually, available to all via their website at https://www.fws.gov/library/collections/sandhill-crane-population-status-reports

Additionally, Dan Collins, the Regional Migratory Game Bird Biologist for USFWS, shared that the wintering flock is very healthy this year. Between 17,000 and 20,000 Rocky Mountain population of greater sandhill cranes are distributed throughout the Middle Rio Grande (MRG) valley in any given year. The number of cranes in specific locations is influenced by foraging opportunities and proximity to roosting.

When birds are spread throughout the valley versus in concentrated numbers on the refuge there is less probability of exposure to cholera and bird flu outbreaks. Furthermore, higher disbursement creates less stress on the birds. This is very good news for the birds!

Good for Humans – but is it Good for the Birds?

Sandhill Cranes nosh on a wide variety of food sources available across the refuge. Photo: “Morning Mist” Douglas Maahs

Although it’s natural for us to want, or even demand, to see massive flocks in concentrated areas, biologists are tasked with protecting this ancient species, which has lived on the planet for over ten million years.

Bearing in mind the refuge’s primary responsibility is toward the health and preservation of wildlife, we feel it’s important to take a couple of steps back for a bird’s-eye view of our patch of the planet and consider what the cranes would want for themselves. Seeing circumstances through their eyes helps bring an honest picture into focus – a vision of a healthy flock which helps to ensure continued years of enjoyment and celebration for everyone.

As the refuge faces these challenges, we all can play a role as admirers and allies to the sandhills in the midst of environmental changes which are escalating. A willingness to shift our priorities to respond to these changes, to adopt new approaches, and providing support to the experts who are working together to protect the wildlife that has given us so much is key to everyone’s success – including the safety of the cranes; including ourselves.

The Friends is committed to providing you with a clear picture of what is happening on the refuge. We welcome your questions and concerns, and deeply appreciate your understanding that tangible information in the public domain can be difficult to obtain. The story of the refuge, just like the story of New Mexico’s landscapes, is very different than it was twenty or even ten years ago. Your continued support is needed more than ever before as the refuge and our community joins together to preserve the birds and the habitats we all deeply love.

With respect and gratitude to our beloved community of wildlife allies,
Friends of Bosque del Apache NWR

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