Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis

summer adult
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
juvenile
Arthur Morris/VIREO
winter adult
Brian E. Small/VIREO
winter adults
Owen Deutsch/VIREO
winter adults
Arthur Morris/VIREO
summer adult male and female
Arthur Morris/VIREO
winter adults
Arthur Morris/VIREO

Family

Description

Found in several scattered areas of North America, Sandhill Cranes reach their peak abundance at migratory stopover points on the Great Plains. The early spring gathering of Sandhills on the Platte River in Nebraska is among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent, with over a quarter of a million birds present at one time. Although they are currently very common, their dependence on a key stopover sites makes them vulnerable to loss of habitat in the future.

Habitat

Prairies, fields, marshes, tundra. Habitat varies with region, but usually nests around marshes or bogs, either in open grassland or surrounded by forest. Northernmost birds nest on marshy tundra. In migration and winter, often around open prairie, agricultural fields, river valleys.

Feeding Diet

Omnivorous. Diet varies widely with location and season. Major food items include insects, roots of aquatic plants; also eat rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds, berries, seeds. May eat large quantities of cultivated grains when available.

Feeding Behavior

See family introduction. Except in breeding season, forages in flocks.

Nesting

Courtship includes elaborate "dance," with birds spreading wings, leaping in air while calling. Nest site is among marsh vegetation in shallow water (sometimes up to 3' deep), sometimes on dry ground close to water. Nest (built by both sexes) is mound of plant material pulled up from around site; nest may be built up from bottom or may be floating, anchored to standing plants. Eggs: Usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Variably pale olive to buff, marked with brown or gray. Incubation is by both sexes, 29-32 days. Female does more of incubating (typically all night, part of day). Young: Leave the nest within a day after hatching, follow parents in marsh. Both parents feed young at first, but young gradually learn to feed themselves. Age at first flight about 65-75 days. Young remain with parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.

Eggs

Usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Variably pale olive to buff, marked with brown or gray. Incubation is by both sexes, 29-32 days. Female does more of incubating (typically all night, part of day). Young: Leave the nest within a day after hatching, follow parents in marsh. Both parents feed young at first, but young gradually learn to feed themselves. Age at first flight about 65-75 days. Young remain with parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.

Young

Leave the nest within a day after hatching, follow parents in marsh. Both parents feed young at first, but young gradually learn to feed themselves. Age at first flight about 65-75 days. Young remain with parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.

Conservation

Within the last few decades, Sandhill Cranes have greatly expanded their nesting range and numbers in the upper Midwest, a population that migrates southeastward toward Florida for the winter. Most populations now stable or increasing, but still vulnerable to loss of habitat. Degradation of habitat at major stopover points for migrants could have serious impact on species. Localized races in Mississippi and Cuba are endangered.

Range

Sandhill Cranes nesting in north migrate long distances (some cross the Bering Straits every spring and fall, en route to and from nesting grounds in Siberia). Those from the southern part of the main breeding range, in the northern and western parts of the Lower 48 states, migrate shorter distances; in recent years they have shown a trend toward migrating later in fall and earlier in spring, and some are now overwintering farther north than in the past. Populations nesting in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba do not migrate.

Listen

unison calls of pair
flock flying overhead
rattle calls
antiphonal flight calls of pair

Similar Species

adult

Great Blue Heron

Widespread and familiar (though often called "crane"), the largest heron in North America. Often seen standing silently along inland rivers or lakeshores, or flying high overhead, with slow wingbeats, its head hunched back onto its shoulders. Highly adaptable, it thrives around all kinds of waters from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where most waters freeze.

adult

Whooping Crane

One of the rarest North American birds, and also one of the largest and most magnificent. Once fairly widespread on the northern prairies, it was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1940s, but strict protection has brought the wild population back to well over one hundred. The flock that winters on the central Texas coast flies 2400 miles north to nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in central Canada; this remote breeding area was not discovered until 1954.

Vireo

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