Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis

John K. Killian
  • GRUIDAE
  • Cranes
  • Gruiformes
  • Grulla, Grulla cenicienta, Grulla del canada, Grulla gris
  • Grue canadienne, Grue du canada
Introduction
Long-legged Sandhill Cranes perform their wild dances year-round in open wetlands and short-grass prairies near water. This tall, grey relative of coots and rails takes up to seven years to reach adulthood, pairs for life, and lives up to 61 years in captivity. Hunting Sandhill Cranes is legal, but closely monitored in North America, except on native lands.
(c) Charles Bush
Appearance Description
Sandhill Cranes are large-bodied wading birds that walk methodically on thick, black legs through shallow wetlands and over prairies. The larger subspecies, the Greater Sandhill Crane, grows to 46 inches long and weighs about 10½ pounds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet (77 inches)! The plumage is mostly grey with a little rusty brown on the upper wings, and a thick plume of feathers over the tail. The skin of the bare crown is bright red and contrasts with the whitish face. The dark bill is long and pointed.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
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.
Habitat
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.
Feeding
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.
Reproduction
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.
Migration
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.
  • 525,000
  • 524,000
  • Increasing population; no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane subspecies is endangered, and the Florida Sandhill Crane is state-threatened. Intensive breeding programs and careful management have stabilized or increased all North American Sandhill Crane populations.
Conservation Issues
Hunting, pesticides, and habitat alteration have contributed to this species' decline in the previous two centuries. Compared to historic numbers, all Sandhill Crane populations are low. Recovery is slow because successful pairs usually only produce one chick per year, and young cranes do not mate until their fourth year.
 
Along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana, the destruction of savannah and open, mature pine forests caused the near-extinction of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane. Since 1965, a captive breeding program has increased the wild population of this subspecies from less than 30 to about 100 individuals. However, nearly 90% of the free-flying Mississippi Sandhill Cranes have been raised in captivity. The viability of this subspecies depends upon the protection and restoration of pine forests and savannahs, the return of natural water cycles to revive old wetlands, and farming practices that benefit Sandhill Cranes.
 
The other Sandhill Crane populations depend on a few critical sites for wintering and migrating. Nearly 80% of mid-continental Sandhill Cranes gather along the Platte River in Nebraska. Such sites must be preserved and enhanced to insure the species' continued recovery. Given the right conditions, Sandhill Cranes may return to previously abandoned sites; in Ohio, a small breeding population reestablished itself in 1987 after a 60-year absence.
What You Can Do
Enjoy the spectacle of Sandhill Cranes on their spring staging grounds, particularly Nebraska's Platte River. View the cranes at Audubon Nebraska's Rowe Sanctuary's Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area; look for wintering flocks in the saline lakes of west Texas; or at Gautier, Mississippi's Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge., or Indiana
 
Stay out of Sandhill Crane breeding territories in order to benefit the birds and to avoid their formidable and potentially hazardous defense.
 
Sandhill Cranes browse in farmlands containing stubble and some waste grain. Encourage late plowing and mowing to benefit the cranes and many other species during migration.
 
Grains and grasses planted in conservation easements and on protected lands can encourage Sandhill Cranes to re-colonize former strongholds. Read about the Sandhill Cranes in Ohio and learn how you can help them.
 
For other actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. National Wetlands Research Center (USGS), Lafayette, LA.
 
Ohio Division of Wildlife Life History Notes: Sandhill Crane. State Endangered Species Publication 382 (399). Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbit, and P. A. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). InThe Birds of North America, No. 31 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologist's Union.
Conservation Status References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. National Wetlands Research Center (USGS), Lafayette, LA.
 
Ohio Division of Wildlife Life History Notes: Sandhill Crane. State Endangered Species Publication 382 (399). Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbit, and P. A. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). InThe Birds of North America, No. 31 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologist's Union.