Status: Not Listed
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, more than 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 birds 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.
Sandhill cranes are large birds with long, thin legs and necks. The bird's cheeks are white and its forehead has a bright red patch, which is one of the bird's most noticeable features. Sandhill cranes have mostly grayish feathers, but the shade of gray can vary widely. Although the feathers are gray, sometimes they can have a reddish-brown appearance. This is because sandhill cranes preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers and mud from iron-rich environments is often red. Sandhill cranes are about three to four feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters) tall with a wingspan that can be more than five feet (1.5 meters).
Sandhill cranes spend most of their lives in freshwater wetlands, including marshes, wet grasslands and river basins. Three subpopulations of sandhill cranes are migratory: the lesser, greater, and Canadian sandhill cranes. All of these subspecies spend winters in the south and summers at their breeding grounds. The cranes winter in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. In the early spring, they 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 southeastern coast of Mississippi. 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.
Sandhill cranes are opportunistic feeders. They will change their diet based on what's available. They most often eat plants and grains, but also dine on invertebrates or even small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
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. The loudest and most noticeable call made by a sandhill crane is during the mating season. Males and females will perform unison calling to create a bond.
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, and jumping. They might also throw a stick or some plants into the air.
When the pair reaches the northern breeding grounds, they mate and build a nest. 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 cranes reach sexual maturity and begin the search to find their own mates. Sandhill cranes in the wild have a greater chance of dying young, but these cranes can live for 20 years or more.
Threats to sandhill cranes include habitat loss, wetland loss, and development. Two subspecies of sandhill crane are federally listed as endangered on the endangered species list: the Mississippi sandhill crane and the Cuban sandhill crane.
Sandhill cranes have an interesting and distinctive call. Both the males and females make a rattling "kar-r-r-r- o-o-o" sound.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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