Sandhill cranes are 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.
Sandhill cranes have the longest migratory route of any crane at about 14,000 miles per roundtrip. They migrate along the Central Flyway from their wintering areas in Texas and Mexico to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. They often travel very high up in the sky.
Up to 550,000 cranes stage at Nebraska’s Platte River each year in March on their way north. The submerged sandbars of the river provide roosting sites for the cranes as they pause there to feed on waste corn in the surrounding fields and to wait for favorable weather before continuing the migration.
This staging area allows the cranes to build up fat deposits for their strenuous trip north. A single crane may gain as much as a pound during its few weeks on the Platte. The Platte River and the surrounding agricultural lands are important to the cranes, since those arriving at their nesting grounds in good shape are better prepared to produce young.
The crane holds its neck out straight in flight, as opposed to tucked. Flocks are arranged in a loose “V” formation during migration. Constant calling between individuals can be heard up to a half-mile away and is audible before the formation is visible. The cranes also stop on the Platte in the fall on their way south, but only for a day or so and in smaller numbers.
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 are the most numerous of all the cranes. Their greatest threat as a species is the loss of migratory habitat, especially on the Platte River.
Water diversions for irrigation and urban water use have drained the Platte of nearly 70 percent of its water supply, which affects the river’s ability to maintain sandbars used by cranes for roosting. Loss of habitat also concentrates migratory waterfowl, including sandhills and whooping cranes, into ever-smaller areas of suitable environment, raising the risk of catastrophic disease outbreaks.
Hunting may affect some populations, such as the Rocky Mountain flock. Twelve western states, two Canadian provinces, nine Mexican states and portions of Russia permit hunting for sandhill cranes. Even so, this species has an increasing population trend.
Courtship includes an elaborate "dance" with birds spreading wings and leaping in air while calling. The nest site is among marsh vegetation in shallow water (sometimes up to three feet deep) or sometimes on dry ground close to water.
The nest is built by both sexes and is a mound of plant material pulled up from around the site. The nest may be built up from bottom or may be floating, anchored to standing plants.
Young leave the nest within a day after hatching and follow their parents into the marsh. Both parents feed the young at first before they gradually learn to feed themselves.
The age at first flight is 65-75 days. The young remain with the parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.
At Fossil Rim, there is one resident sandhill crane - a male. He is most likely to be seen in the Main Pasture or the Buffer Pasture - the third or second pasture you enter, respectively. Also, migrating sandhill cranes will fly over Fossil Rim or visit for a short time.
Where are they?
This is a migratory species, but we have one resident crane. He will most likely be in the second or third pasture you enter.
Our resident crane is not shy, so there is a decent chance you might encounter him close to the road.
Species Survival Plan
Coyote, bobcat, domestic dog and eagle
Plant matter, insects, aquatic invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and fish
Originally Native To
Northeastern Siberia, Alaska and Canada
10 - 15 lb.
Tall gray crane with red crown patch, reddish brown eyes and white cheek patches; wingspan of 60 - 72 inches
February to June
Wild 18 - 24 years
Single male harems slightly smaller than those of the plains zebra. Rarely do small herds combine to form large aggregations, as opposed to the plains zebra. They are migratory