Flock of sandhill cranes in flight in a blue sky.
Migrating Sandhill crane The long-distance migration of Sandhill crane is one of the greatest spectacles of nature. © © Richard Lee

Animals We Protect

Sandhill Crane

Standing more than a meter tall and boasting a wingspan of 2 meters, this amazing bird can be spotted in a wide range of U.S. states and Canada.

Every spring, bird watchers flock to the outdoors to watch the bird migrations. One species that is always breathtaking to spot as its massive wingspan engulfs the sky is the sandhill crane.

These striking birds stand between 1.0-1.2m tall and boast a wingspan that stretches up to 2.0m . In addition to their distinctive height, the sandhill crane sports a recognizable red crown that contrasts with their rust or grey plumage—making them an unmistakable species.

In honor of these astounding birds, here are some fun facts you may not know about sandhill cranes.

Silhouettes of sandhill cranes in flight in an orange sky.
Sandhill cranes Sandhill cranes can fly as many as 400 miles in one day. © Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy

Sandhill Crane Facts

1) You can spot sandhill cranes almost anywhere from Mexico to Siberia depending on the season.

Of the 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the most numerous and wide-ranging. In North America, there are several recognized subspecies, including two non-migratory populations that are each restricted to Mississippi and Florida. Sandhill cranes are incredibly strong flyers, and may fly as many as 400 miles in one day during migration.

Winter: At the start of the year, sandhill cranes are typically found in the Southern part of the United States and near the northern border of Mexico. They can be spotted in specific locations in California, Texas, Florida and various other southern states during late winter months.

Spring: In Early Spring, sandhill cranes migrate north and can be seen in a variety of states in the West and Midwest, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana, Illinois and Indiana. 80 percent of all sandhill cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River during spring migration. From March to April, more than 500,000 birds spend time in the area preparing for the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

Summer: As summer approaches sandhill cranes are usually spotted in the most northern regions of the contiguous U.S. and in Canada and Alaska. About one-third of the entire North American population of sandhill cranes breeds in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska. Outside of the Americas, they can be found as far north as Siberia.

Fall: As fall approaches, the cranes then reverse this treacherous journey and start to head South again.

2) Sandhill cranes are great dancers.

Sandhill cranes’ most famous behavior is their dancing ritual. The dance starts when a male crane has gained the attention of a female, and they both present an elegant low bow. This bow is followed by a series of specific movements, calls and leaps- creating a stunning sight for any onlooker.

While this incredible dance is often associated with courtship, it can be seen year-round. Once the dance has been started by a pair, it can rapidly spread through the entire flock

Silhouettes of sandhill cranes on a beach.
Sandhill cranes Sandhill cranes on the Platte River. © Chris Helzer/TNC

3) Sandhill cranes have at least eighteen different vocalizations.

Sandhill cranes produce a variety of calls of differing intensity and volume that are used in different social contexts. The calls range from a piercing rattle that can be heard from four kilometers away to low purrs that only carry a few meters. Rattle calls can be sung in unison, with several members of the flock joining to create a cacophony of noise. By contrast, the quiet purrs are often heard just before cranes take-off, while they are feeding, or as a sign of aggression.

Sandhill cranes have several other calls, including the trill and peep noises they ouse as young hatchlings—or even from within the egg. Cranes have also been observed making a snoring-like call while roosting. Sandhill cranes use their various calls to communicate different information to their mates or to the rest of the flock.

4) The sandhill crane is one of the oldest bird species and has been around for at least 2 million years.

Sandhill cranes have been on Earth for an incredibly long time. The Sandhill Crane is among the oldest species of bird, with fossils dating back at least two million years.

Some scientists speculate that these ancient animals could be up to six million years old. A crane fossil found in Nebraska, estimated to be about 10 million years old, is thought to be a close relative of the modern sandhill crane.

Despite this longevity, with the expansion of European settlers into the western U.S., the population of Sandhill Cranes had dropped to record lows by the 1960s. Numbers have recovered considerably since then.

Closeup of a sandhill crane head as it grazes.
Close-up of a sandhill crane. © David Moynahan

5) People love to celebrate sandhill cranes.

The beauty of sandhill cranes has permeated cultures all over the world, and the species has captured the attention of many groups throughout history. There are at least ten annual sandhill crane festivals around the U.S. from Tennessee to Washington. Colorado alone has two!

The Monte Vista Crane Festival commemorates the thousands of sandhill cranes that meet in the Monte Vista National Wildlife refuge. Cranes have been passing though this area of Colorado for hundreds of years and they are traditionally met by an onslaught of eager birdwatchers trying to get a glimpse of these elegant creatures. The cranes arrive in this area mid-February and leave by early April.

The Yampa Valley Crane Festival celebrates the Sandhill Cranes nesting and raising their young in the Yampa Valley. The Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition runs this festival in order to celebrate this majestic bird and educate the public.

The Nebraska Crane Festival is a month-long spring celebration of the cranes' migration through the Nebraska flyway.

The Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival happens every fall when cranse return to the California Delta.

 

Gustavus Forelands.
Gustavus Forelands Preserve
Alaska
Moose, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, and waterfowl rely on these lands to rest and refuel during migration.
Cosumnes River.
Cosumnes River
California
From September to March, thousands of endangered sandhill cranes roost and forage in rice fields planted to attract them along the Cosumnes River.
Sandhill cranes.
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
California
California's two largest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, meet to form the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America.
Northern Sierra.
Northern Sierra
California
Within the Sierra Nevada lies the Northern Sierra Project, a landscape-scale endeavor that reflects the unique and ambitious approach of The Nature Conservancy.
Staten Island.
Staten Island
California
Staten Island is an extraordinary example of wildlife friendly farming that represents a unique opportunity for conservation.
Pronghorn antelope graze at Carrizo Plain.
San Luis Obispo County
California
The coastline in this area is studded with rare Monterey pine forest and boasts coastal prairie, marsh and sage scrub, interspersed with rolling grasslands and maritime chaparral.
Twilight over a still lake.
Mishak Lakes Preserve
Colorado
Located near Saguache in the San Luis Valley, Mishak Lakes consists of dozens of shallow seasonal ponds.
Silver Creek meanders through fields with mountains in the distance.
Silver Creek Preserve
Idaho
A unique desert spring creek, a world-class trout fishery and amazing wildlife await at Silver Creek Preserve.
Grasses along the shore of a lake.
McMahon Lake Preserve
Michigan
The 4,084-acre McMahon Lake Preserve lies within the watershed of the Two-Hearted River, a state-designated Natural River.
Sandhill crane.
Anna Gronseth Prairie
Minnesota
In early spring, visitors to Anna Gronseth Prairie will not want to miss observing the greater prairie chicken on its booming grounds, or leks.
Sandhill cranes in flight at sunset.
Twin Valley Prairie
Minnesota
Twenty-seven species of butterflies flutter among the preserve's diverse wildflower population, including the state-threatened Dakota skipper.
Elk.
Wallace C. Dayton Conservation Area
Minnesota
The preserve is located within the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland landscape, one of the most intact grassland systems in the Midwest.
A grassland with a few small trees.
Old Fort Bayou Mitigation Bank
Mississippi
Situated only a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, this unique area was Mississippi's first coastal wetland mitigation bank.
Overlooking the Pascagoula River at sunset.
Pascagoula River Watershed
Mississippi
A strong sense of heritage and local activism has allowed the Pascagoula River to remain the last unimpeded major river system in the lower 48 states.
Tiny blue wildflowers.
Platter River Prairies
Nebraska
Located between Grand Island and Kearney, Nebraska, the Platte River Prairies are a chain of grasslands and wetlands that are managed for biological diversity.
John E. Williams Preserve.
John E. Williams Preserve
North Dakota
The scenery here is stark with wide-open vistas. It is nearly treeless, with gently rolling grasslands and numerous wetlands and large alkali lakes.
Mountains reflected in the Carson River at River Fork Ranch.
River Fork Ranch
Nevada
TNC has protected 805 acres of important floodplain at a ranch where sustainable grazing is practiced to provide habitat for many plants and animals, including the sandhill crane.
A view looking across Snow Lake, surrounded by trees with orange, red, yellow and brown fall foliage.
Lucia S. Nash Preserve
Ohio
The Lucia S. Nash Preserve lies within the Western Allegheny Plateau Ecoregion. A National Natural Landmark, it is the only remaining old-growth white pine boreal bog in Ohio.
Four Canyon Preserve.
Four Canyon Preserve
Oklahoma
The Four Canyon Preserve encompasses 4,000 acres along the Canadian River in western Oklahoma.
Chinook salmon.
Lower Klamath Basin
California
The Klamath River and its tributaries represented one of the greatest salmon runs on the Pacific coast. TNC is working to restore critical spawning and rearing streams.
Grasses and flowers along a shoreline.
The Bear River
Utah
The Bear River is a critical waterway for both nature and people. See how TNC is working to protect the Bear in Cache County.
Shooting stars in bloom at Chiwaukee Prairie, Wisconsin.
Chiwaukee Prairie
Wisconsin
Chiwaukee is part of the last unbroken stretch of prairie of its kind in Wisconsin and home to more than 400 plant species, including 26 rare plants.
Trees in autumn colors reflected in water.
Crooked Creek Preserve
Wisconsin
Crooked Creek Preserve harbors a major portion of the headwaters of the Mukwonago River, kettle lakes, and wetlands inhabited by sandhill cranes and other plants and wildlife.
Oak trees near wetland area.
Newell And Ann Meyer Nature Preserve
Wisconsin
The Newell and Ann Meyer Nature Preserve is 374 acres of oak savanna and woodlands, wetlands and former agricultural land near Eagle, Wisconsin.
Pollys Lake, Page Creek Marsh.
Page Creek Marsh
Wisconsin
This large wetland preserve supports a rich diversity of plants, waterfowl and grassland birds.
Sunset at Lulu Lake shadows over stream and wildflowers.
Mukwonago River Watershed
Wisconsin
We are working with local communities and partners to protect clean water and natural areas in the Mukwonago River watershed in southeast Wisconsin.
Scarlet birds with long curved bill stands in water.
Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve
Kansas
As the richest wetland feeding grounds in the central flyway, Cheyenne Bottoms is critical to the survival of many species.

TNC Preserves and Projects with Sandhill Cranes

Protecting the Sandhill Crane 

Sandhill cranes rely on open freshwater wetlands for most of their lifecycle. Degradation of these kinds of wetland habitats is among the most pressing threats to the survival of sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes are the most numerous of the world’s crane species. According to the  North American Breeding Bird Survey, their populations have been increasing at an annual rate of five percent per year since the mid-1960s, due to wetland restoration and abundant food on agricultural lands.

Even despite this rebound, however, the sandhill crane remains on endangered species lists in some states, including California. Some of the  non-migratory sub-populations  in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba have not fared as well and are still in decline.

In California, TNC researchers are studying sandhill crane numbers by using drones. Further east in Nebraska, TNC is taking steps to protect vital crane habitat along the Platte River. By maintaining sufficient water levels along the Platte and keeping invasive species out of the river corridor, TNC hopes to see continued health and growth of crane populations.