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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis ORDER: GRUIFORMES FAMILY: GRUIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, Sandhill Cranes have an elegance that draws attention. These tall, gray-bodied, crimson-capped birds breed in open wetlands, fields, and prairies across North America. They group together in great numbers, filling the air with distinctive rolling cries. Mates display to each other with exuberant dances that retain a gangly grace. Sandhill Crane populations are generally strong, but isolated populations in Mississippi and Cuba are endangered.

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Keys to identification Help

Heronlike
Heronlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Sandhill Cranes are very large, tall birds with a long neck, long legs, and very broad wings. The bulky body tapers into a slender neck; the short tail is covered by drooping feathers that form a “bustle.” The head is small and the bill is straight and longer than the head.

  • Color Pattern

    These are slate gray birds, often with a rusty wash on the upperparts. Adults have a pale cheek and red skin on the crown. Their legs are black. Juveniles are gray and rusty brown, without the pale cheek or red crown.

  • Behavior

    Sandhill Cranes forage for grains and invertebrates in prairies, grasslands, and marshes. They do not hunt in open water or hunch their necks the way herons do. Sandhill Cranes form extremely large flocks—into the tens of thousands—on their wintering grounds and during migration. They often migrate very high in the sky.

  • Habitat

    Sandhill Cranes breed and forage in open prairies, grasslands, and wetlands. Outside of the breeding season, they often roost in deeper water of ponds or lakes, where they are safe from predators.

Range Map Help

Sandhill Crane Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Sandhill Crane

    Adult
    • Very large and pale silver/gray with long, black legs
    • Red patch on crown contrasting with white cheek
    • Thin, pointed black bill
    • Unique "curved" feathers at rump
    • © Laura Erickson, Disney Wilderness Preserve, Florida, December 2005
  • Adult

    Sandhill Crane

    Adult
    • Very large with long neck and legs
    • Red patch on crown
    • Some adults stained rusty-orange from iron-rich mud
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, September 2010
  • Adult

    Sandhill Crane

    Adult
    • Very large and long-necked
    • Unique curved or "drooping" rump feathers
    • Some adults stained rusty-orange by iron-rich mud
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, September 2012
  • Adults

    Sandhill Crane

    Adults
    • Very large, mostly pale silver-gray
    • Distinctive in flight with long neck extended, and long black legs trailing behind
    • Red patch on crown
    • © Laura Erickson, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico, November 2011
  • Adult with chicks

    Sandhill Crane

    Adult with chicks
    • Adult very large and mostly pale gray
    • Chicks bright rusty-orange and covered in fluffy down
    • © osprey41, Land O Lakes, Florida, April 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult
    • Smaller and more slender-bodied than Sandhill Crane
    • Thicker, olive/yellow bill
    • Black crown
    • Rusty thighs
    • © Brian Guest, Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, March 2009
  • Adult

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult
    • Similar to Sandhill Crane, but flies with neck curved and tucked in
    • Paler, thicker bill
    • Two-toned wings
    • © Judy Howle/GBBC, Columbus, Mississippi
  • Adult

    Whooping Crane

    Adult
    • Larger and taller than Sandhill Crane
    • Bright white overall
    • Dark red patch on crown with stripe extending across cheek
    • © Roy Brown Photography, Georgia, December 2010

Similar Species

Great Blue Herons are often mistaken for Sandhill Cranes—but they are fairly easy to separate. Great Blue Herons have a black-and-white head, a larger, more daggerlike, yellow bill, and a black-bordered stripe down the center of the neck. They are less bulky than Sandhill Cranes, without the drooping “bustle” at the tail. They fly (and often stand) with their head folded back against their shoulders, and they rarely fly in groups of more than 10 the way Sandhill Cranes do. The endangered Whooping Crane is even larger than a Sandhill Crane, and is white rather than dark gray.

Regional Differences

Sandhill Cranes are similar in plumage across their range, but they vary in size. “Lesser” Sandhill Cranes breed in the Arctic and are the smallest; the largest form (“Greater” Sandhill Crane) breeds in the northern U.S. The nonmigratory “Florida” Sandhill Crane and a form that breeds in central Canada are intermediate in size.

Find This Bird

Sandhill Cranes are large birds that live in open habitats, so they’re fairly easy to spot if you go to the right places. In summer look for them in small bogs, marshes, and prairies across northern North America and the southeastern United States. In winter they form immense flocks in places like Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Their bugling calls are unique and can be heard from miles away—they can help alert you to this species’ presence, particularly as they pass overhead on migration.