Sandhill Crane Life History

Habitat

Habitat MarshesSandhill 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.Back to top

Food

Food OmnivoreThe 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. Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundSandhill 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
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.
Back to top

Behavior

Behavior ProbingSandhill 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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernIn general, Sandhill Cranes are numerous and their populations increased by about 4.5% per year between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists them as a Species of Low Concern, and estimates the species as an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. However, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane (a subspecies) is endangered, largely from conversion of their wet pine savanna habitat into pine plantations. This population is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. 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.Back to top

Credits

Gerber, Brian D., James F. Dwyer, Stephen A. Nesbitt, Rod C. Drewien, Carol D. Littlefield, T. C. Tacha and P. A. Vohs. 2014. Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA. 

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Back to top