How farmers are helping sandhill cranes return to California

April 8, 2015, 4:37 p.m.

For wintering birds, large stretches of California are vital habitat for resting during migration or waiting out the cold northern winter while keeping warm in the golden state. For people across the country California is vital for fresh fruits, vegetables and other food items filling grocery store isles. The conversion of untouched acres into farmland can spell disaster for the over 200 species of migrating bird that spends at least part of its life every year in California -- it nearly caused the end of greater sandhill cranes. But thanks to conservationists and farmers working together, farmland is still a welcoming habitat for tired and hungry birds.

Around 95 percent of California's wetlands were converted into farmland, cities and other development. Greater sandhill cranes were once common in the area, but by 1940, there were only 5 breeding pairs left in the state.

In "Return of the sandhill cranes: How California is bringing back a prehistoric species" we wrote, "The cranes are especially sensitive to habitat loss because they roost at night in shallow wetlands but feed by day in agricultural fields, and typically travel no farther than about two miles to get from one to the other. So appropriate roosting and feeding grounds need to be found fairly close together. While progress has been slow, conservationists and farmers have made some headway in forming a network of managed land where both greater and lesser sandhill cranes can feed and roost."

Now there are an estimated 465 pairs breeding in California. All because farmers and conservationists worked together for a common goal.

Of course, this isn't the only problem sandhill cranes face in California. Now there is an historic drought to contend with as well. Photographer Donald Quintana wrote of this photo of lesser sandhill cranes, "Late in the evening the Sandhill Cranes would fly into the [Merced National Wildlife] refuge. Then the next morning, just as quickly as they flew in, they would fly out at first light and be gone for the day. We were lucky on this morning that we had the opportunity to capture them as they departed. There weren’t a great many cranes this time, perhaps 500 at best. Warmer weather seemed to encourage earlier migration. In years past, I can remember seeing cranes by the thousands at this time in the season. Who knows what next year will bring with the drought and the increase temperatures. I certainly hope it gets better."

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.