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What Kids Can Expect at the Festival of the Cranes

What Kids Can Expect at the Festival of the Cranes

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(Updated for 2019) It’s time! Mark your calendar for the 2018 Festival of the Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. From puppets and crafts to a raptor show, this festival is a fun wintertime treat for the whole family. We asked Whooping Crane expert Amber Wilson what kids and families will find at this year’s Whooping Crane Festival January 12-13, 2019. Go ahead and mark your calendar!

Whooping Crane Festival

Where: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, AL
When: January 12-13, 2019 – Saturday from 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday from 7 a.m.-5 p.m.

Do your kids enjoy learning about animals and spending time outdoors? Amber made a career out of it! Amber Wilson is the Alabama Whooping Crane Outreach Program Assistant for the International Crane Foundation. After earning her college degree in 2014, Amber spent time working for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as for the Houston ISD’s Outdoor Education Center in Trinity, TX.

  • Her Favorite Course in School: Biology
  • Her Loves: Teaching outdoors
  • Her Aha Moment: While debating on whether or not to take a position with the International Crane Foundation, she went hiking to clear her head and when she did, about 200 Sandhill Cranes flew over her head. From that point on, she didn’t look back.
  • Her Inspiring quote: “I don’t consider this work. This is fun. And my father always said find a career that doesn’t feel like work. So here I am!”

RCM: What are some of the fun activities I can tell my kids to expect this year?
Amber: There will be all sorts of arts and crafts such as crane puppets, masks, and origami. Kids can also get up close and personal with a visit from the USFWS’s Goose and ICF’s Whooping Crane mascots at the festival. Auburn will also provide a free raptor show at the Princess theatre downtown twice during Saturday and Sunday. Wheeler has also set up free shuttles to and from the Princess to make sure the guests have a great time! And then of course there is the actual observation building which you can visit and see thousands of Sandhill Cranes and a few rare Whooping Cranes!

RCM: What age kids will love this best?
Amber: There really is something for every age! The younger kids will love the arts and crafts station. There will be guest speakers for some of the older kids such as an Audubon impersonator and a professional flutist. Then for the much older kids (adults) there will be birding walks and photography shops!

RCM: What kind of gear would be fun for my kids to bring to maximize the experience? They love to come prepared!
Amber: Bring your camera, binoculars, a journal to sketch and write down what you see. The refuge is amazing, and going to the observation building during the winter is captivating. You will want to remember it! Also, bring money because the gift shop is pretty neat!

RCM: What should we look for to know that we’ve spotted a Whooping Crane?
Amber: To identify a Whooping Crane, look for a huge bright, white bird with a red patch on its head and black wing tips. The red patch on its head is really important because no other bird in North America has that except Sandhill Cranes. Most people have no idea what they are looking for, and sometimes get egrets confused with Whooping Cranes.

RCM: How long should I plan for this festival? (I.e., How many snacks should I pack?)
Amber: I would suggest checking out the schedule at Wheeler’s website to see what piques your family’s interests. We have people who stay a few hours and some that stay all day! And some even come back the next day! Feel free to pack snacks, but the refuge will also be providing pizza for the visitors on Saturday, while supplies last, at $5.00 a slice! If you would prefer to eat at the refuge that is an option for you. There are picnic benches outside, and if it is a nice day feel free to pack a lunch and enjoy the outdoors.

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festival of cranes

RCM: What kind of natural romping grounds are available for my kids to have fun, exploratory time?
Amber: The walk to and from the observation building is a nice stroll which is great for burning off extra energy, but if you would like to expend more energy the refuge has a wonderful nature trail next to the visitor center that takes you through a beautiful Cypress grove. It gives you and your family a chance to enjoy Alabama’s ecological diversity, and provide your kids with a little running room. Be sure to listen for the cranes, and watch for other species of birds on that trail – bring your binoculars!

RCM: What are some kid-friendly resources where my kids can find interesting facts on Whooping Cranes to prepare for the event, and possibly incorporate into our homeschooling curriculum for the week leading up to the event?
Amber: The International Crane Foundation’s website,, is a great resource for information on all the cranes species from around the world. They also have amazing videos on their YouTube channel, that give you excellent visuals and stories on how amazing these birds are.

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