MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Everyone knows birds head south for the winter. But did you know there are thousands of sandhill cranes passing through Minnesota right now?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says more than 11,000 of the majestic birds are staging for migration.

They are in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour north of the Twin Cities.

“Sandhill cranes actually are one of the oldest bird species,” Michelle Bengson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. “So they’re very, very well adapted.”

The wildlife refuge is home to some sandhill cranes all summer, but the ones that live north of the Twin Cities still stop there in the fall.

They roost in these wetlands every night, and feed on leftover corn and soybeans during the day.

“In the fall time their diet changes so that it’s heavy on carbohydrates, and so that’s why they leave to go to farm fields,” Bengson said.

The cranes stay in the wetland all day during the spring and early summer, eating insects and small aquatic animals.

But eating carbs in the fall gets them ready for the long flight to Texas or Florida. This year’s count of 11,000 birds is a record.

“It tells us a lot about the health of the species,” Bengson said. “Here locally, it tells us that the way we’re managing our land, and conserving our land, is improving.”

There is a lot of information on the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge’s website about seeing the sandhill cranes, including a map of the best viewing spots. And yes, people do come to see them.

“I’ve been shocked by how many visitors we have that come here just to see the sandhill crane migration. And they’ll come from all over Minnesota to be able to see them stage here,” Bengson said. “The neat thing about sandhill cranes is they kind of take you back in time. To me they look kind of prehistoric, or almost you could almost imagine them here with the dinosaurs.”

The cranes are easy to see with binoculars because they are so large. The adult wingspan is about six feet.

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