Sandhill Crane

Genus: Grus
Species: canadensis

One of the most beautiful natural phenomena in the United States is the annual congregation of the sandhill cranes. For about a month each March, over 500,000 sandhill cranes converge on the Platte River basin in Nebraska to rest and eat before they finish their migration to their northern breeding grounds. The cranes eat corn from the grain fields and then sleep on the sandbars. Time on the Platte River also gives single sandhill cranes the chance to find mates. If you are interested in birdwatching, a trip to the Platte River to see the sandhill cranes is a once in a lifetime experience.

Sandhill crane preening

Description:  Sandhill cranes are large birds. Their legs and necks are long and thin. Sandhill cranes are pretty hard to miss!

Sandhill cranes have mostly grayish feathers-- the shade of gray can vary widely. The forehead has a bright red patch that is one of the most noticeable features of the bird.  The cheeks are white.

Although the feathers are gray, sometimes they can have a reddish-brown appearance. The reason for the change in color is that sandhill cranes preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers. The mud can be brown or red. The red mud comes from iron rich environments.

Size:  Sandhill cranes are about 3-4 feet tall. The wingspan can be over 5 feet wide.

Diet:  Sandhill cranes are opportunistic feeders. They will change their diet based on what is available. They most often eat plants and grains, but also dine on invertebrates or even small mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

Typical Lifespan:  Sandhill cranes can live for 20 years or more.  Sandhill cranes in the wild have a greater chance of dying young.

Habitat:  Sandhill cranes spend most of their lives in freshwater wetlands, including marshes, wet grasslands and river basins.

Range:   Three subpopulations of sandhill cranes are migratory. The Lesser, Greater and Canadian sandhill cranes spend winters in the south and summers at their breeding grounds.

Sandhill cranes winter in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. In the early spring, the cranes begin the migration to their breeding grounds. Throughout the spring, the cranes can be seen resting and feeding along rivers and wetlands throughout the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest. The largest congregation of sandhill cranes occurs from February to early April along the Platte River in Nebraska.

During the late spring, summer and early fall, sandhill cranes can be seen at their breeding grounds. Some breed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Others breed in Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

Three subpopulations of sandhill cranes are non-migratory. The Mississippi sandhill crane is found on the southeast Mississippi coast. Florida sandhill cranes occur in many inland wetlands of Florida. The Cuban sandhill crane lives exclusively in savannas, wetlands and grasslands in Cuba. Mississippi and Cuban sandhill cranes are critically endangered. 

Communication:  Sandhill cranes have an interesting and distinctive call. Both the males and females make a rattling "kar-r-r-r- o-o-o" sound. The call varies in length, strength and loudness depending on its intention. The loudest and most noticeable call is during the mating season. Males and females will sing loudly and in unison.

Life History and Reproduction:  Sandhill cranes mate for life. When they form a pair bond, it can last for years until one of the cranes dies. After a mate passes away, the surviving crane will seek out a new mate.

In the early spring, as sandhill cranes are migrating to their breeding grounds, single cranes will start pairing up. A sandhill crane pair performs unison calling to create a bond. When the pair reaches the northern breeding grounds, they mate and build a nest.

During mating, sandhill cranes perform dancing displays. Although the dancing is most common in the breeding season, the cranes can dance all year long. Sometimes the dance involves wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around. They might also throw a stick or some plants into the air. It's quite a sight!

Cranes build a ground nest out of plant materials. They often have two eggs. The pair will take care of the nest together with the male standing guard.

It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch and over two months for the chicks to be independent.  In the fall, the juvenile sandhill cranes migrate south with their parents.  After two years, the juvenile sandhill cranes reach sexual maturity and begin the search to find their own mates.

Threats to Sandhill Cranes:

Two subspecies of Sandhill Crane are on the Endangered Species List. The Mississippi and the Cuban Sandhill Crane are listed as Endangered.

Related Articles

Get Our E-Newsletter 
Help Wildlife. Symbolically adopt an animal today!
Migratory Birds in a Warming World
Learn more about NWF's partnership with Bank of America