Sandhill Cranes: A Symbol of Hope

In the days leading up to war, the great migration of sandhill cranes in Nebraska was for Jane Goodall a source of hope and a reminder of nature's tenacity.

While visiting Nebraska last March, I found a source of hope that I now share with audiences everywhere I travel.

It was the very day that the first bombs dropped on Baghdad. I was on a two-day break during my jam-packed U.S. lecture tour, staying in a cabin built by the father of a friend, the wonderful wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. I planned to use the time to write and to witness the magnificent display of the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes who gather in the Platte River valley every year during their northward migration.

Early in the day about 2,000 cranes alighted right outside the cabin, closer than they’ve ever been before. For nearly two hours, I was mesmerized as first one group and then another danced, leaping up again and again with outstretched wings, picking up bits of straw and clods of earth and throwing them in the air. Later by the river I sat for hours and watched as what seemed to be millions of cranes and snowgeese flew past to their roost. Sometimes they came in great clouds, sometimes in delicate skeins that traced changing patterns in the sunset. Most amazing was the cacophony of their calls and trills. Their voices spoke of the wilderness, the freedom of the skies, snowy wastes, far-off lands.

Their magnificent display seemed to speak as well of resilience, hope, and a call to action. Despite all the harm we have done to the environment, the millions of birds who gather along the Platte River each year still get enough nourishment for their marathon flights to their nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska, even Siberia. Though they face an increasing number of threats from human activities, their age-old migration continues to be a most amazing phenomenon. To ensure that sandhill cranes continue to thrive, we must work harder than ever to preserve the Platte River and all the last wild places, to heal the harm we have done to the environment, to live in greater harmony with nature.

When I returned to the cabin that night, I heard the terrible news that the bombing of Iraq had begun and I felt devastated. But, sitting by the fire with a candle that I had lit earlier with a desperate prayer for war to be averted, I thought of the cranes. They symbolize peace for so many people around the world. We can view them on their great migratory journeys as peace messengers, their display along the river as a Dance of Peace. They tell us that there is hope even in darkness. They tell us there will be peace at the end. Meanwhile, we must become far better stewards of the natural world than we have been, so that we are ready for peace when it finally comes.

--Jane Goodall

This piece originally appeared in One magazine, a lifestyles publication in Omaha, Nebraska. It also appeared in L, One's sister publication in Lincoln, Nebraska.

You can view Tom Mangelsen's beautiful wildlife images, including those of sandhill cranes, at Check out Tom's online catalogue of images!


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