The most abundant of all the crane species, the sandhill crane is one of the tallest birds in the world. While it does have many subspecies that vary considerably in size, they all share the same general shape and markings, making identification easier.
- Bill: Straight, thick, blackish-gray
- Size: 35-50 inches long with 72-90-inch wingspan, long legs, long neck, bushy rear bustle
- Colors: Gray, yellow, red, tan, black, buff, rusty-brown, white
- Markings: Genders are similar though the exact bird size and extent of colors varies with different subspecies. The plumage is gray overall and may show lighter gray or buff edging to feathers on the breast and back. The wings are gray-tan. The head is gray with a bright red forehead and crown, and the yellow or red eyes stand out well in the face. The cheeks are white or whitish-gray. The wings, breast and flanks may be stained with a strong rusty-brown color or might have only a few feathers with that color, but that is not actually the color of the plumage; it is from mud the birds pick up while feeding or preening, but can be quite distinct. The rump is covered with a large "bustle" of tan feathers. The legs and feet are black.
Juveniles lack the red on the head, have paler legs and bill and are more brownish overall.
Aquatic plants, grain, seeds, fruit, insects, mollusks, amphibians, rodents (See: Omnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
Sandhill cranes prefer wet, open habitats such as fields and meadows, and they are frequently found in open marshes and bogs. These birds can be found year-round in central Florida, along the border of Mississippi and Louisiana and in a small area of southern Georgia, but most are migratory. Their summer range covers most of Alaska and northern Canada as far south as Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the east and eastern Oregon, northern Utah and Nevada and western Montana in the west, and in Asia, sandhill cranes breed in northeastern Siberia. In winter, these cranes migrate to suitable areas of central California as well as from southern Arizona to northern Florida. Some can also be found wintering in northwestern Mexico, and rare vagrants are occasionally noted in Europe.
Sandhill cranes have a loud, rolling bugle that has a rattling quality to its sound. The throaty call lasts 1-2 seconds but can be quickly repeated, and the sound can carry for several miles.
Sandhill cranes are gregarious and can gather in flocks of tens of thousands, particularly during spring migration and on their wintering range. Such large flocks can be tremendously noisy, and are very active with the birds probing and picking along water surfaces or muddy areas to feed. In flight, these birds hold their necks out straight and their legs extend well past their short tails.
These are monogamous birds believed to mate for life. Their courtship dance is an energetic duet of leaps and bows with their wings partially spread, all while calling loudly. After mating, both parents work together to build a shallow nest or low mound from sticks lined with moss, reeds and grass. Two eggs are laid per brood, and the eggs are long ovals that can be buff or olive colored and are marked with dark spots.
Both parents share incubation duties for 28-32 days, and the precocial young – called colts – are able to leave the nest and feed themselves within a day of hatching. The young birds stay with their parents for 60-65 days until their first flight, and will remain in loose family groups through fall migration.
Where sandhill cranes have been recorded as vagrants, they have occasionally hybridized with common cranes.
Attracting Sandhill Cranes:
These large waders are not typical backyard birds, though they will occasionally visit feeding areas in their year-round central Florida range. Birders who wish to see sandhill cranes often visit the Platte River in Nebraska for the birds' outstanding spring migration, when thousands of the birds roost together in a relatively small area. During winter when these birds use the same roosting grounds reliably, there are several birding festivals to take advantage of the spectacle. The Sandhill Crane Festival in California is one of several birding festivals in November that feature sandhill cranes returning to their winter range.
As a species, the sandhill crane is not considered endangered, though it is vulnerable to habitat loss and illegal shooting. Several states permit legalized hunting of sandhill cranes, an issue that has great controversy with birders due to the sensitive nature of several subspecies. The Mississippi and Cuba subspecies of these birds are considered endangered.