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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
47.2 in
120 cm
Wingspan
78.7 in
200 cm
Weight
119.9–172.8 oz
3400–4900 g
Relative Size
About the same size, but considerably bulkier, than a Great Blue Heron. Smaller than a Whooping Crane.
Other Names
  • Grue Canadienne, Grue de Canada (French)
  • Grulla, Grulla Cenicienta, Grulla del Canada (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Sandhill Crane’s call is a loud, rolling, trumpeting sound whose unique tone is a product of anatomy: Sandhill Cranes have long tracheas (windpipes) that coil into the sternum and help the sound develop a lower pitch and harmonics that add richness.
  • Sandhill Cranes are known for their dancing skills. Courting cranes stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air in a graceful and energetic dance.
  • The elegance of cranes has inspired people in cultures all over the world—including the great scientist, conservationist, and nature writer Aldo Leopold, who wrote of their “nobility, won in the march of aeons.”
  • Although some start breeding at two years of age, Sandhill Cranes may reach the age of seven before breeding. They mate for life—which can mean two decades or more—and stay with their mates year-round. Juveniles stick close by their parents for 9 or 10 months after hatching.
  • The earliest Sandhill Crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, was unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida.
  • Sandhill Crane chicks can leave the nest within 8 hours of hatching, and are even capable of swimming.
  • The oldest Sandhill Crane on record was at least 36 years, 7 months old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found in New Mexico in 2010.

Habitat


Marsh

Sandhill Cranes breed in open wetland habitats surrounded by shrubs or trees. They nest in marshes, bogs, wet meadows, prairies, burned-over aspen stands, and other moist habitats, preferring those with standing water. Breeders gravitate toward the edges between wetland and upland habitats, while nonbreeders may prefer open, grassy sites. Sandhill Cranes winter in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, roosting on shallow lakes or rivers at night and spending the day in irrigated croplands, pastures, grasslands, or wetlands.

Food


Omnivore

The omnivorous Sandhill Crane feeds on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water, gleaning from the surface and probing with its bill. Its diet is heavy in seeds and cultivated grains, but may also include berries, tubers, small vertebrates, and invertebrates. Nonmigratory populations eat adult and larval insects, snails, reptiles, amphibians, nestling birds, small mammals, seeds, and berries.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–3 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.7 in
9.3 cm
Egg Width
2.3 in
5.9 cm
Incubation Period
29–32 days
Egg Description
Pale brownish yellow to olive, with irregular brown or gray markings.
Condition at Hatching
Well-developed, covered with down, and active, with open eyes.
Nest Description

Sandhill Cranes build their nests from the dominant vegetation—such as cattails, sedges, burr reeds, bulrushes, or grasses—using dried plant materials early in the season and adding green materials later on. To a foundation of larger materials they add a cup-shaped hollow lined with smaller stems or twigs. Both mates may gather material, tossing it over their shoulders to form a mound. The female is usually the one to stand on the mound and arrange the material. Nests may be 30-40 inches across and 4-6 inches high; those built over water are larger than those built on dry land.

Nest Placement

Ground

Sandhill Cranes usually nest in small, isolated wetlands—such as marshes, bogs, and swales—or within about 300 yards of the edges of larger ones. They prefer areas with vegetation growing in standing water, but some nest on dry ground. It’s not known whether males or females choose the nest site. If one member of a pair dies, the surviving member may reuse its previous nesting area with a new mate.

Behavior


Probing

Sandhill Cranes mate for life, choosing their partners based on dancing displays. Displaying birds stretch their wings, pump their heads, bow, and leap into the air. Although each female usually lays two eggs, only one nestling typically survives to fledge. Mated pairs and their juvenile offspring stay together all through the winter, until the 9- to 10-month-old juveniles finally separate from their parents the following spring. During migration and winter the family units group together with other families and nonbreeders, forming loose roosting and feeding flocks—in some places numbering in the tens of thousands. Eggs, nestlings, and injured or sick adults may be hunted by foxes, raccoons, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, crows, ravens, eagles, and owls. Cranes attack aerial predators by leaping into the air and kicking their feet forward. They threaten terrestrial predators by spreading their wings and hissing, eventually resorting to kicking.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

In general, Sandhill Cranes are numerous and their populations have been increasing by about 5 percent per year since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They score an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not considered a species of concern in the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan. However, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane (a subspecies) is endangered, largely from conversion of their wet pine savanna habitat into pine plantations. Another isolated population in Florida is of concern but not presently endangered. Sandhill Crane populations recover slowly, partly because each breeding pair usually has only one chick per year that survives to fledging. The future of Sandhill Cranes is mainly tied to the fate of their habitat. It’s particularly important to conserve wetlands in the ranges of nonmigratory populations, and in staging and wintering areas where large migratory flocks congregate.

Credits

Range Map Help

Sandhill Crane Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. Three subspecies live year-round in Florida, Mississippi, and Cuba. Three other subspecies migrate from northern North America to the southern United States and northern Mexico.

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.