The first Sandhill Cranes begin arriving on the Platte River in Nebraska in late February. Throughout the month of March their numbers increase until over 100,000 cranes are roosting on the river at the end of the month.
Sandhill CraneGrus canadensis
Sandhill Cranes are majestic birds. They walk on the ground with stately tread, and fly with their long necks and legs fully extended, often giving a wild guttural bugling in flight. Found in various parts of the west and southeast, they reach their peak abundance at migratory stopover points on the Great Plains. The early spring gathering of Sandhills on the Platte River in Nebraska is among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent.
Field MarksNote the bald red crown, bustlelike rear. A long-legged, long-necked, gray bird, often stained with rust. The immature is brown. In flight, the neck is extended and the wings beat with an upward flick.
Size40-48" (100-120 cm); spread 6-7 feet
Similar SpeciesGreat Blue Heron is sometimes wrongly called a crane.
VoiceA shrill, rolling garoo-a-a-a; repeated.
RangeNortheastern Siberia, North America, Cuba. Winters to Mexico.
MigrationSandhill Cranes nesting in north migrate long distances. Travel in flocks, pausing at traditional stopover points. Young birds apparently learn route from their elders. Populations nesting in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba do not migrate.
HabitatPrairies, fields, marshes, tundra. Habitat varies with region, but usually nests around marshes or bogs, either in open grassland or surrounded by forest. Northernmost birds nest on marshy tundra. In migration and winter, often around open prairie, agricultural fields, river valleys.
FeedingDiet: Omnivorous. Diet varies widely with location and season. Major food items include insects, roots of aquatic plants; also eat rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds, berries, seeds. May eat large quantities of cultivated grains when available.
Behavior: Feeds on land or in shallow water. Forages by probing in soil with bill, and by taking items from surface. Except in breeding season, forages in flocks.
NestingCourtship includes elaborate "dance," with birds spreading wings, leaping in air while calling.
Nest: Site is among marsh vegetation in shallow water (sometimes up to 3' deep), sometimes on dry ground close to water. Nest (built by both sexes) is a mound of plant material pulled up from around site; nest may be built up from bottom or may be floating, anchored to standing plants.
Eggs: Usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Variably pale olive to buff, marked with brown or gray. Incubation is by both sexes, 29-32 days. Female does more of incubating (typically all night, part of day).
Young: Leave the nest within a day after hatching, follow parents in marsh. Both parents feed young at first, but young gradually learn to feed themselves. Age at first flight about 65-75 days. Young remain with parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.
ConservationMost populations now stable or increasing slightly, but still vulnerable to loss of habitat. Degradation of habitat at major stopover points for migrants could have serious impact on species. Localized races in Mississippi and Cuba are considered endangered.