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sandhill crane

Grus canadensis

What do they look like?

Sandhill cranes are large birds with long necks and legs. They are about 1.2 m tall, and have wing spans of about 2 m. They are grayish all over, with a white cheek and a bright red bald crown. Sandhill cranes can be identified in flight by the way the hold their neck (straight out) and the way they beat their wings. Their wings beat slowly downward, and the quickly flick upward.

Male and female sandhill cranes look very similar, but males are usually larger than females. Young sandhill cranes look similar to adults, but are usually more brownish-gray than adults.

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes. These subspecies look similar, but they differ in body size. They also breed in different places. (Peterson, 1980; Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    3200 to 5200 g
    112.78 to 183.26 oz
  • Average wingspan
    2 m
    6.56 ft

Where do they live?

In North America, this species breeds as far north as Alaska and the Arctic coast of Canada south into the Great Lakes region and westward across Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. It also breeds in the extreme southeastern United States and Cuba. The winter range of this species includes parts of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida and northern Mexico. Populations of sandhill cranes are also found in northeastern Siberia, Andyrland, and on the Chyukotski peninsula and Wrangel Island. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Sandhill cranes usually prefer large open grasslands and freshwater marshes or bogs. They also seem to prefer to be far away from humans. During migration, sandhill cranes are often seen feeding on crops and leftover crop stubble in agricultural fields. At night they roost together in large marshes. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

How do they reproduce?

Sandhill cranes are monogamous (one male mates with one female). Once breeding pairs form, they remain together for many years. This species uses many fancy courtship displays to attract a mate and to maintain a bond with their mate. Sandhill cranes trying to attract a mate "dance" for the potential mate. "Dancing" includes five displays, called the Upright wing stretch, Horizontal head pump, Bow, Vertical leap and Vertical toss. Once pairs have formed, they call together and perform dances together to maintain their pair bond. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

Sandhill cranes raise one brood of chicks per year. In non-migratory populations, they lay eggs anytime between December and August. In migratory populations, sandhill cranes usually lay their eggs in April and May. The male and female work together to build the nest. Nests are made of plant material, and are usually in marshes, bogs, or swales. When the nest is finished, the female lays 1 to 3 eggs. The eggs are oval-shaped and brown with reddish spots. Both parents incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts for 29 to 32 days.

When the chicks hatch, they are covered in soft down. They can walk and even leave the nest the same day they hatch. The parents brood the chicks to protect them and keep them warm for up to 3 weeks. They also feed the young. The chicks stay with their parents until they are 9 or 10 months old. When they leave their parents, the young cranes form flocks. They stay in these flocks until they find a mate and begin breeding between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Sandhill cranes raise one brood per year.
  • Breeding season
    In non-migratory populations, egg-laying can happen any time between December and August. In migratory populations, sandhill cranes usually lay their eggs in April and May.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 3
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    29 to 32 days
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Range time to independence
    9 to 10 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 7 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 7 years

Sandhill cranes care for their chicks for a long time. Both parents build the nest and incubate the eggs. Both parents also feed the chicks and protect them for up to 10 months after they hatch. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

How long do they live?

The oldest known sandhill crane lived at least 21.6 years. Most sandhill cranes do not live nearly that long.

How do they behave?

Sandhill cranes are active during the day. They are also partially migratory. This means that some populations of sandhill cranes migrate, and others do not. Sandhill cranes that breed in Canada and the northern United States fly south for the winter. Those that breed in the southern United States and the Caribbean stay in the same area all year.

Cranes are usually found in pairs and family groups (a breeding pair plus their chicks). During migration and winter, family groups may join up with single cranes to form survival groups that feed and roost together. These survival groups often join big flocks during migration and winter. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • Range territory size
    0.10 to 0.85 km^2

Home Range

Two studies resident sandhill crane populations in Florida estimated average home ranges of 657 and 1366 hectares.

How do they communicate with each other?

Sandhill cranes communicate using body signals and calls. Adult sandhill cranes use more than 10 different calls to communicate. Their calls are quite loud and sound like "trills", "purrs" and "rattles". Sandhill cranes use calls to defend their territory, to let others know that there is a predator nearby, and in many other interactions with other cranes. Breeding pairs may call together in a duet to defend their territory. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

What do they eat?

Sandhill cranes are omnivorous. They use their bills to probe the ground for food and to glean seeds and other foods. These birds feed on land or in shallow marshes with vegetation. They eat different foods throughout the year, depending on what is available. Cultivated grains such as corn, wheat and sorghum are a favorite food when they are available. Other foods that sandhill cranes eat include berries, small mammals, insects, snails, reptiles, and amphibians. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • Animal Foods
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

When bird predators come near to sandhill cranes, the cranes fly at the predator and kick it with their feet. When other predators approach sandhill cranes, the cranes threaten the predator by spreading their wings and pointing their bill at the predator. If this doesn't work, they attack the predator, hissing and stabbing with their bills and kicking with their feet. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Young and sick sandhill cranes provide food for their predators. Sandhill cranes affect the populations of species that they prey upon. They also host at least 24 different species of parasites. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

Do they cause problems?

Sandhill cranes feed on crops where they are available.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

Sandhill cranes feed on insects and rodents that may damage crops. (Tacha, et al., 1992)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Sandhill cranes are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act and CITES Appendix II. Two subspecies of sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis nesiotes (Cuba sandhill crane) and Grus canadensis pulla (Mississippi sandhill crane), are endangered in the United States. Populations of this species are not growing very fast because each breeding pair only raises one or two chicks each year. Also, sandhill cranes are hunted in several midwestern states. Protection of wetland habitats is very important in order for sandhill cranes to survive. (Tacha, et al., 1992)


Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Marie S. Harris (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Peterson, R. 1980. Eastern Birds; A completely new field guide to all the birds of eastern and central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Tacha, T., S. Nesbitt, P. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). Pp. 1-24 in A Poole, P Stettenheim, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 31. Philadelphia, PA: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists' Union.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Harris, M. 2000. "Grus canadensis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 20, 2014 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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