Birding New Mexico

New Mexico: Consider the Sandhill Crane

The Sandhill Crane is a bird that easily demonstrates the critical importance of water and how people can affect positive change for the benefit of nature

Audubon New Mexico is proud to announce that 2018 is the Year of the Bird. We are asking people to recommit themselves to helping birds and to protecting the places they need to thrive like the Gila River and the Rio Grande. Our partners at National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will be celebrating Year of the Bird with us while raising awareness about bird challenges across all channels – magazines, television, social media, and more – with new editorial content, and programs. We encourage our community to think about the iconic and unique birds in the Southwest that benefit from added appreciation and care in a world that can sometimes be a hazardous place for wildlife.

In the arid west, our highly variable water supply is a signature unpredictability that drives conservation and shapes the lives of the people and birds we love. This is why Audubon New Mexico believes the Sandhill Crane captures the spirt of Year of the Bird so well. The Sandhill Crane (Grus Canadensis) is a species that easily demonstrates the critical importance of water and how people can affect positive change for the benefit of nature. This winter, follow the Rio Grande south to the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge – public lands that are open to all. With little effort, you will hear a rattling cry rolling over miles of agricultural fields and glassy wetlands. This is the sound of overwintering cranes foraging on sweet corn planted and managed by the refuge.

A wide, shallow river channel with numerous, large sand bars and a mosaic of sloughs and wetlands once characterized the Middle Rio Grande. Twentieth century dams, flood control, and channelization altered the flow of water. Let us paint a picture: A wide, shallow, braided river channel meanders across the floodplain. Snowmelt brings large spring floods that overbank, moves sediment, and forms new river channels. New sandbars, wetlands and forests, are created in its path. Now, we store and divert water, fewer overbank events occur, the river channel incises and narrows, and the water table falls. Wetland, meadow and sandbar habitat that provides loafing and feeding and nocturnal roosting areas for cranes are less common and smaller. This is particularly discouraging as Audubon’s climate models demonstrate that Sandhill Cranes will lose up to 58% of their winter range to climate change by 2080. Declines in current available habitat exacerbate the problem.

Once at Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex or Bosque Del Apache NWR it may be difficult to remember that this dusky grey bird was once in decline due to habitat loss. You may hear flocks of twenty or more scattered throughout the refuge, but at sunset, they fly in to roost and overwhelm. Their large bodies and six-foot wingspans silhouetted against the fiery orange sky are quite the spectacle.

Cranes roost over water and require food to sustain them through winter. State and federal refuge staff provide these conditions by planting crops and mimicing natural wetlands through a system of gates and dams that flood and drain managed wetlands on seasonal schedules. Audubon New Mexico and other environmental organizations are doing our part to restore the Rio Grande while also looking to other solutions for birds in your backyard. As you begin to #birdyourworld with us for Year of the Bird, we encourage you to look up for the Sandhill Crane and reflect on how our rivers and western waters bring life to the Southwest. For more information on how to plan your visit to Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowls Complex and Bosque Del Apache NWR, visit: and

Audubon New Mexico volunteer and stellar photographer Tom Taylor allowed us to use recent footage from Bosque Del Apache NWR. Take a look HERE

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