What Is It Wednesday: Sandhill Crane

Name: Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Sandhill Cranes are tall birds with long legs, long necks, short tails, and stubby bodies. Their plumage is gray, except for the very top of their heads which are capped bright red. Measuring in at 3-4 ft tall and a wingspan of at least 5 ft, these birds could be mistaken for Blue Herons at a distance. Although, Sandhill Cranes don’t scrunch their necks like Blue Herons do and their bodies are considerably bulkier. These birds also make a loud, distinct call that sounds like a rattling, bugle-like “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o”, which can be heard from up to 4 km away (listen to their call here). They also make moaning, hissing, and snoring noises, as well as goose-like honks. The diet of the Sandhill Crane differs depending on where they end up because they are opportunistic eaters (i.e. they eat whatever is available to them). For the most part, they eat insects, roots, invertebrates, and, when available, cultivated grains.

Canadian Sandhill Cranes are one of three migratory subspecies in North America (see their full range in Figure 1). They form large flocks, sometimes into the tens of thousands, while wintering and migrate in these flocks to their breeding grounds. The preferred habitat for Sandhill Cranes is freshwater wetlands, such as bogs, marshes, lakes, ponds, and swamps. They tend to stick to shallower spots during the breeding season but navigate towards deeper waters for greater protection once the breeding season is over. These birds can also be found at Mud Lake Nature Reserve, one of TTLT's Vision 20/20 Campaign properties (click here for Campaign info).

Sandhill Cranes mate for life. It all begins during migration – young and single cranes begin to pair up as they migrate towards their breeding grounds. To attract their mates, these birds perform lively and energetic dances that include bowing, wing stretching, head pumping, leaping, and very loud calling. Once paired, these mates will continue to their breeding grounds, where they will breed and make their nest. Both expectant parents help to prepare the nest by throwing whatever the dominant vegetation is over their shoulders, creating a mound 4-6 inches high and 30-40 inches wide. Nests are typically built over water or very close to water. Two eggs will be produced (sometimes less and rarely more), but the chances of both surviving to fledge are unlikely. Babies will leave the nest and are capable of swimming within hours of being hatched. They will stick close to their parents for the first 9-10 months of their lives until they head out on their own.

Fun Fact: Sandhill Cranes have been on this Earth for a very long time. A Sandhill Crane fossil was found from the Miocene Epoch (23.03 to 5.3 million years ago) and it showed that the structure between historic and modern Sandhill Cranes has barely changed over time.

Figure 1: North American range for Sandhill Cranes (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/maps-range).