Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Sandhill Cranes breed across most of Canada, west of Quebec, and across Alaska. In the United States, this crane breeds from Michigan northwest through Wisconsin, and in four distinct populations from California to Colorado. Wintering grounds include Texas and northern Mexico. Permanent resident populations still exist in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here
Sandhill Cranes inhabit a variety of open environments that are almost always associated with water. Breeding cranes use tundra, grassy wetlands, and savannahs. During migration and in winter, flocks comprised of family groups concentrate on prairies, harvested grain croplands, swamp shallows and edges, and low salinity lakes and ponds. In Florida, cranes even forage on lawns and driveways in residential neighborhoods.
Walking slowly through shallow water or short vegetation, Sandhill Cranes pick a variety of items from the water surface, plants, and the ground. They also probe the ground just below the surface. Their diet varies with the seasonal availability of grains, insects, rodents, small reptiles, berries, and other fruits. Sandhill Cranes tend to forage in flocks after breeding.
At spring migration sites, where adults linger for over a month, Sandhill Cranes form lifelong pair bonds. Mated pairs defend their territories with visual displays, singing in duet, and sometimes violent aggression that may include kicking, stabbing with the bill, and choking. John James Audubon described how an irate Sandhill Crane once chased him into a river; he was neck-deep before the bird relented.
Cranes maintain pair bonds with a variety of displays: bowing, leaping, dancing, and raising their bills. Both sexes build a mound of plant material, either near or floating on water. The female lays 1 to 3 pale eggs marked with brown. For about 30 days, both sexes incubate during the day, but the female incubates at night. The chicks leave the nest in about a day. Parents lead their young to food and brood them for 2 to 3 weeks; chicks feed independently after approximately 5 months. Young cranes can fly in about two months and remain with their parents throughout migration and the winter, until about a month before the parents nest again. The highly social sub-adult Sandhill Cranes gather in flocks, which are prone to wandering, until individuals reach maturity in 4 to 7 years.
Three Sandhill Crane subspecies migrate along traditional routes and gather for extended periods at favored locations, such as the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, which hosts spectacular numbers of these magnificent waterbirds. Sandhill Cranes migrate in flocks, sometimes at high altitude, and usually during the day. Migration periods are extended over two to four months. Of the five North American subspecies, two are non-migratory: the Mississippi Sandhill Crane and the Florida Sandhill Crane.