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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
The oldest known sandhill crane lived at least 21.6 years. Most sandhill cranes do not live nearly that long.
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)
Two studies resident sandhill crane populations in Florida estimated average home ranges of 657 and 1366 hectares.
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)
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)
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)
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)
Sandhill cranes feed on crops where they are available.
Sandhill cranes feed on insects and rodents that may damage crops. (Tacha, et al., 1992)
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.
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.