Arizona’s winter sandhill crane population has boomed from about 4,000 in the late 1970s to more than 34,000 today, in large part because of the state’s Heritage Fund.
Money from the Heritage Fund has secured ideal habitat for the birds in southeastern Arizona. Voters created the fund in 1990 and authorized Game and Fish to use Arizona Lottery dollars to support wildlife conservation. The fund gets as much as $10 million annually. Game and Fish doesn’t get any state general fund money.
“One reason for the increasing number of cranes in the Sulfur Springs Valley is the availability of prime wetland habitat that the birds require and that the Game and Fish Department has provided,” said Mike Rabe, a migratory bird biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Cranes that used to fly south to Mexico now stop in Arizona because of those habitats.”
The impressive increase in sandhill cranes is good news for wildlife enthusiasts. Seeing hundreds or even thousands of cranes take to the skies, feed in the fields or come in to land is a thrilling sight. Adult sandhill cranes can have wingspans of 6-7 feet and stand five feet tall.
The Heritage Fund’s direct impact on wildlife conservation is compounded by the economic benefit that wildlife viewing has on communities across the state, especially in rural areas.
The city of Willcox estimates that $60,000 to $80,000 comes into the local economy from hotel, gas, restaurant, and other related purchases just during Wings over Willcox, an annual four-day bird viewing event. Two state wildlife areas – the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area near Willcox and the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near Douglas – offer visitors good viewing facilities, including bathrooms.
The Wings Over Willcox website at Wingsoverwillcox.com features maps of viewing sites and all kinds of information about sandhill cranes. The cranes migrate to southeastern Arizona in September and stay as late as March, with most of the birds present between November and February, according to the Wings Over Willcox site.
Sandhill crane viewing tips:
• The best viewing time is at first and last light when the cranes head out to feed, although it is possible to see them throughout the day during winter.
• Listen for the birds: They are very vocal and can often be heard before they are seen.
• Don’t forget your binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras and bird field guides.
For more information on wildlife viewing opportunities in the state, visit ww.azgfd.gov/wildlife.
For more information on the Heritage Fund and other state wildlife conservation programs, go online to azgfd.gov/w_c.