Cool History About Monte Vista’s Annual Crane Festival

Monte Vista, Colorado – It might surprise you to know that sandhill cranes weren’t the original stars of Monte Vista’s first crane festival back in 1984. Whooping cranes were.

Whooping cranes, it turns out, were on the brink of extinction from hunting and habitat loss. In 1941, there were only a couple of dozen left in the wild. So scientists began placing whooping crane eggs in sandhill nests as part of a foster program aimed at establishing a population outside of the eastern states. When the whooper chicks hatched, the foster parents raised the chicks as their own. Sandhill cranes migrating through the San Luis Valley were used in the program in hopes that the shorter migration route—from southern New Mexico, through the Valley, to nesting grounds around Yellowstone—would improve the whooping crane’s chances for population growth.

The Monte Vista event was originally called the Whooping Crane Festival because of a few dozen foster whoopers spotted as the sandhill cranes migrated through the Valley. Bigger and lighter in color, the whooping cranes were easy for bird lovers to spot. But over the years, the Valley’s small whooping crane population petered out because of drought, mortality and failed breeding. The only pseudo success was a possible hybrid sandhill-whooping crane spotted a couple of years in the early 1990’s. By the year 2000, only two whooping cranes passed through the Valley. The only remnant these days is a unique sculpture fashioned from farm tools standing in front of the Monte Vista Safeway named “Cooper the Whooper.”  

The first crane festival was a small event that attracted mostly locals. Over the years, festival activities have included square dances, bluegrass festivals, pancake breakfasts, baked potato dinners, quilt raffles, juried art contests and music performances by artists such as Michael Martin Murphey. Keynote speakers have included big names like wildlife photographer and nature writer John Fielder and former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Nowadays, thousands of bird lovers flock to Monte Vista in mid-March for the three-day festival filled with tours, lectures, live-bird exhibits, photography classes and an arts and crafts show. But the biggest draws remain the scenic San Luis Valley, hospitality of Valley residents and the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and other unique wildlife.

This year’s crane fest is March 10-12. For details and registration, visit or call the Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce at 719-852-2731. Registration deadline is March 8. For information about the 2017 Monte Vista Crane Festival Photo Contest, visit, Photo entries of Valley nature will be accepted through February 15, 2017.

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