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Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge welcomes guests for annual "Festival of the Cranes"

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a winter home for thousands of migrating birds. Visitors from all over are encouraged to admire their beauty.

DECATUR, Ala. — This weekend, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Friends of Wheeler Refuge are hosting their 11th annual Festival of the Cranes, where families can come and enjoy the beauty of thousands of cranes who have migrated here for the winter.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 by Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after TVA created the reservoir.

David Young, Park Ranger at WNWR, shares, "they decided that it would be a quote on quote 'experiment' to see if in the backwaters of the newly created lake, they could provide waterfowl habitat."

Fast forward to today, where the 35,000 acres of preserved wildlife habitat, extending between Decatur and Huntsville, hosts 50,000 ducks, 18,000 Sandhill Cranes along with at least a dozen endangered Whooping Cranes.

"We were established really to provide wintering ducks, geese and now cranes with wintering habitat to feed, be healthy, and then we send them on their way to migrate back north to breed and spend their summers up north," Young said.

Throughout the year, the refuge does a lot with water management, "we raise and lower water levels, bring it up in the winter so that the ducks can get to the grains and the little critters that they eat. And then we drop it down in the summer so that those plants can grow during the growing season," Young said.

And as these birds make their way here, it brings people from all over, admiring their beauty during the annual "Festival of the Cranes" event.

"Our 'Friends [of Wheeler Refuge]' group hosts that each year to help families discover a little bit more about nature, to come see the cranes out here in the fields and just to have a good time outside and hopefully become inspired to help conserve and protect a lot of these things so that these birds are here 100 years from now."

Nicole Mashburn, a Board Member for Friends of Wheeler Refuge, says "Whooping Cranes are very endangered and they have started coming here for about the last six or seven years. And so we want to showcase that because most people have never seen one."

This weekend's festival, hosted by the Friends of Wheeler Refuge organization, acts as an education program for those wanting to learn more about wildlife.

"We have birdwatching opportunities on Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. here at the refuge," Young said.

And in downtown Decatur, "we've had presenters for condors, raptors. We have a reptile show tomorrow," Mashburn said.

Although many of the birds leave after the winter, there's still so much to do and see at the Wheeler Refuge.

Mashburn adds, "if you live in Alabama, we have a treasure here. It's not far...take the drive."

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