Sandhill cranes are some of the largest birds in our ecosystem, standing 3-5 feet high and sporting wingspans of up to 7 1/2 feet. They can weigh as much as 10-15 pounds. Their overall plumage is gray, which often shifts to a brownish-ochre color around migration time. The bright red patch on the top of their head makes them easy to recognize at a distance.
The unique call of the sandhill crane can be heard from miles away. The pitch and harmonics of their call come from long tracheas (windpipes) that coil at the lower end. In the “Sounds” section of this page, you can listen to the “unison call” made by a pair of cranes.
The total estimated population of sandhill cranes is around 700,000, with an upward trend.
Sandhill Cranes in this ecosystem
The sandhill cranes in this ecosystem are migratory. A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management (1999, Drewien et al) found that cranes from this area gather at a pre-migration area in Teton Basin in eastern Idaho and use an autumn/spring staging area in the San Luis Valley in Colorado. They spend their winters in the Middle Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico.
We still have a lot to learn about migration patterns. If you spot wild sandhill cranes with bands (colorful rings on their legs), please report your sighting to the International Crane Foundation.
Sandhill crane conservation and management cannot be done on an ecosystem-by-ecosystem or state-by-state basis. Success is dependent on cooperation among groups throughout their habitats.
Sandhill cranes are omnivores, eating seeds, small mammals, cultivated grains, berries, fish, tubers, and amphibians.
At the Sanctuary, we feed our cranes a varied diet, including appropriate fruits, veggies, and crane pellets. After a rainfall, Big Bird & Niles can often be seen supplementing their diet with earthworms.
BEHAVIOR & Lifespan
Sandhill cranes move quickly when migrating, averaging 300 miles per day when they migrate. When preparing to migrate, upwards of 1,000 will gather in staging areas, and the actual flight is usually in flocks of up to 200. They fly with their necks outstretched, unlike blue herons, which fly with their necks folded.
Sandhill cranes mate for life, and they’re known for the elaborate dance moves in their courting displays.
They build their nests on the ground, typically in marshy areas. Chicks are precocial, hatched with their eyes open, covered with down. Baby sandhill cranes, known as “colts,” typically leave the nest within eight hours of hatching, but hang out near their parents for eight or nine months