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What is a Sandhill Crane?

By Bethney Foster
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, is a large, gray bird endemic to North America and northeastern Siberia. It is found in open grasslands, meadows, and wetlands and is known for its mass migrations. There are six sandhill crane subspecies, three of which do not migrate.

A large bird, the sandhill crane has a long neck and long legs. The average length of the bird is 47 inches (120 cm), and weight is about 11 pounds (5 kg). The crane’s wingspan is about 6.5 feet (2 m).

The bird’s forehead is red, and the cheeks are white. Juvenile birds are gray and brown but do not have the facial colors found on adults. Living to be up to 20 years old, the sandhill crane first breeds between the ages of 2 and 7 years. Mated pairs stay together through the year and migrate with their offspring.

The nest is made in the water and is either free-floating or attached to vegetation. The eggs are pale brown with darker brown markings. When the babies hatch, they are covered in down. They can walk soon after hatching and begin feeding themselves the next day. The male defends the nest until the babies begin to fly, about 70 days after hatching.

Often associated with courtship, the cranes are known for dancing. Dancing is part of the mating rituals of the birds, but isn’t always related to breeding. Cranes will dance before they are sexually mature and during all seasons.

The primary diet of the sandhill crane is grains, seeds, and some insects. They will occasionally eat mice, snakes, and other small animals. The birds are also known to feed on plant tubers and agricultural seeds, such as corn.

There are an estimated 650,000 individuals. The population of the birds is considered to be stable and increasing. The three nonmigratory subspecies are the Mississippi, Cuban, and Florida cranes. The lesser, greater, and Canadian subspecies are migratory and spend the winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico.

When migrating, the birds often congregate in large numbers. As many as 450,000 individual birds—an estimated 80 percent of the world's population—pass through the sandhills of the Platte River in Nebraska each year. Birds begin arriving in late February for spring migration and leave by mid-April. During the fall migration, the birds begin arriving in late September and continue through mid-December. The birds usually only stay overnight during this migration.

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