DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) – More than 18,000 cranes have made the journey from Wisconsin to Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, ushering in the annual Festival of the Cranes. Thousands of people travel to Decatur to meet the birds each year, bringing with them a sense of curiosity and a passion for wildlife conservation.

Courtesy: Liza Shishido

“I think cranes are my spirit animal,” said Kaylee Kelley, a young visitor to the wildlife refuge. “They are so majestic.”

On average, the cranes begin arriving in Alabama in mid-November, with the highest numbers occurring in December and early January.

Courtesy: Liza Shishido

“The festival is all about celebrating that these birds are wintering here, enjoying watching them, and learning a little bit about birds and other nature around us through family activities,” said park ranger David Young.

Some bird watchers return year after year. Visitor Cindy Upton first saw Sandhill Cranes while on a business trip in Nebraska.

“When they started coming here, not so long ago, like ten-ish years ago, I was so excited,” Upton said. “Now we have this wonderful opportunity, and it’s actually the Festival of the Cranes.”

Upton returned to this year’s festival and brought her friend Elizabeth Blackwell.

“This is the first time I’ve come out to the park to actually see the cranes,” Blackwell said. “I’ve seen them as I’ve passed by, but now I want to get a closer look.”

Many visitors hope to catch a glimpse of the red head of a Whooping Crane. Only 800 are left in the wild, and 10 to 20 of them spend the winter in Decatur.

“They come because we have water, relatively undisturbed open fields, and food,” Young said.

The marshes and shallow water found at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge create a perfect environment for Sandhill Cranes and their endangered relatives, Whooping Cranes. Their food sources include insects, frogs, crawfish, and crops like corn and millet. The refuge allows local farmers to plant fields on the property with the understanding that 20% of their crop yield will be left for the wildlife.

“It’s a special place as far as wildlife goes, and these cranes represent the biodiversity that the state of Alabama has,” Young said. “It’s something to celebrate, to be proud of, and something we can take care of all together. I invite folks to come out, take part, learn something new, and have fun with your family.”

Annually, three to five thousand people come by Wheeler Wildlife Refuge on the weekend of the Festival of the Cranes.

“Based on the number of folks that have been out here this morning to see the cranes, I think we’ll probably see our highest amount of visitors yet,” said Young.

The festival lasts through Sunday, January 15. The scheduled events take place at several venues around Decatur, including the Princess Theatre, Alabama Center for the Arts, and the Decatur Public Library. For a full list of events, click here.