Sandhill Crane Migration

Every year, we see birds on their seasonal migration searching for new land with food, water, and shelter. But, did you know that during the Sandhill Crane migration, the birds use the migration routes even without knowing the route or traveling to their seasonal homes before?

Migration has helped organisms to evolve, find shelter when their native homes have unfavorable conditions, and lastly, to help bring a balance to biodiversity. Migration is a vast concept, and all the organisms on the planet tend to migrate in search of food, water, or shelter. One such exciting migration is Sandhill Crane migration.

Sandhill Cranes, birds of North America and North-East Siberia, are timid creatures that travel in flocks. But why do they keep coming back to agricultural fields? Why are their nests on the ground in marshy lands? Read on to know about these giant, intriguing creatures and the even more intriguing concept of the Sandhill Crane migration.

Identifying Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes are large birds with long legs, a long bill, and a long neck. This type of bird has broad wings and drooping plumage. However, they have a short tail and a small head. They are bulky birds with an average adult male Sandhill Crane weighing 4.57kg and an average female Sandhill Crane weighing 4.02 kg.

Sandhill Cranes have long necks, resulting in a huge windpipe spiraling into the sternum. This makes them sound loud, low-pitched and trumpeting. It makes them easy to identify because they make these unique sounds.

Sandhill Cranes have capabilities to swim too. The migrating species of the Sandhill Cranes have ochre feathers. Their foreheads are red, and their cheeks white. Their bills are pointed and dark-colored. They also have wide wings, that help them soar through the sky.

These birds are very skilled in soaring, just like Hawks and Eagles. This also helps them migrate to longer distances.

In regions with iron-rich mud, the plumage of Sandhill Cranes turns reddish-brown; this happens as a natural habit of the birds of preening. As autumn arrives and Sandhill Cranes start to molt, their rusty brown color is lost. The young Sandhill Cranes have lighter shades of plumage than the adult that are a cinnamon brown.

The most outstanding feature of the Sandhill Cranes is the red color patch that covers the forehead area and the eyes.

When the Sandhill Crane migration happens, they fly in flocks of hundreds, creating an outline that makes them identifiable. At the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, around 10,000 Sandhill Cranes are seen flying together in a flock during their migration period.

Subspecies and Evolution of Sandhill Cranes

The taxonomy of the Sandhill Cranes is a much-debated topic. However, the subspecies are categorized into six on the basis of their weight, height, and geographical areas that they inhabit. The subspecies are further classified into migratory and non-migratory.

The Sandhill Crane migration has enabled the evolution of the Sandhill species. The typical bird migration pattern, which also evolves throughout the year, gives the birds access to more breeding grounds and thereby introduces other species; this leads to the evolution of the species.

Where Can You Find Sandhill Cranes?

Sandhill Cranes have occupied a wide range of geographical areas: North America, North Canada, to the south, and northern Mexico. These species are native to North America and northern east Siberia. However, some subspecies populations have also been found in Cuba.

During early spring, Sandhill Cranes gather in Nebraska on the Platte River. This is noted as one of the greatest wildlife extraordinary happenings in the American continent. The Sandhill Crane migration enables the Sandhill Cranes to inhabit another land during their seasonal migration while traveling through a migration path.

Sandhill Cranes prefer open lands and marshes. You can find them in prairies as well as wetlands surrounded by trees and shrubs. The habitats that they usually live in are wet habitats with standing water.

What do Sandhill Cranes Feed on?

Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous birds. Their diet mostly comprises seeds and cultivated grains. They also feed on small vertebrates and invertebrates, tubers, and berries.

The subspecies that do not migrate feed on small mammals, insect larvae, reptiles, snails, nestling birds, seeds, berries, and amphibians. The chicks need high-protein diets to grow rapidly, and therefore they feed on insects and other invertebrates.

The Sandhill Crane migration allows Sandhill Cranes to find abundant food resources during their breeding period.

They are ground feeders; they point their bills to the ground and pick food from it. These birds eat from shallow wetlands. One essential thing to note here is that feeding Sandhill Cranes is illegal. There are various reasons why it is prohibited. Still, the main reason is that feeding wildlife disturbs the ecosystem, and the wildlife starts getting dependant on humans for their survival which is neither safe for them nor the humans.

There have been several cases of the Sandhill Cranes being overfed or fed the wrong things. It is hazardous to disturb the food chain and can have serious consequences.

Breeding and Nesting

The breeding period for Sandhill Cranes starts in spring; the Sandhill Crane migration starts as they travel to their breeding grounds and lay eggs from April to May. The plants in the low mound are chosen to make the birds’ nests and secure the eggs.

A cup-like shape is made at the center. At one time, one to three eggs are laid. For 29 to 32 days, both the sexes of Sandhill Cranes incubate the egg. The young Sandhill Cranes fledge at around day 67 to 75.

However, they do not become independent from their parents until they are 9 to 10 months old. The breeding age of a Sandhill Crane may start anytime between two to seven years. The Sandhill Cranes live up to 20 years. The mated pairs migrate as a group with their offspring and stay together year-round, Sandhill Cranes mate for life.

Behavior of Sandhill Cranes

The general behavior or characteristics that the Sandhill Cranes exhibit are wing-flapping, jumping, extravagant dancing, bowing, running, and stick or grass tossing.

They exhibit a dancing behavior as a result of defense to assist motor development; it also has a significant role in courtship. It is interesting to note that dancing strengthens the bond of the mating pair. Every spring, Sandhill Crane migration occurs.

Why do Sandhill Cranes Migrate?

Sandhill Cranes migrate for the same reason as all the other birds. Sandhill Crane migration happens because the birds seek roost sites, abundant food, and water resources, essential nutrients from wet meadows, and lastly, safe loafing areas for resting, bathing, and mating. It is also the breeding time when the Sandhill Crane migration occurs.

Sandhill Crane Migration Patterns and Routes

In the early winter and early autumn, the Sandhill Cranes migration happens, the migratory population leaves the northern breeding grounds. When large flocks of birds form together in groups and collect together in areas during the migration route, it is called the staging grounds. 450,000 to 700,000 sandhill cranes migrate in mid-February and the ending of April. These birds migrate from their wintering grounds in southern regions like Texas and New Mexico to summer breeding grounds in the Arctic and subarctic.

A migration route that traverses the western Gulf Coast to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, Sandhill Cranes travel through this flyway called North America’s Central Flyway. This migration path takes roughly six weeks.

The bird migration pattern is intricately chosen so the birds can rest, refuel and then resume the course of the journey. These birds usually rest on staging ground; two such staging grounds are Oroville and Bridgeport, Washington.

Conservation of Sandhill Cranes

Many initiatives and groups have been formed since the 1950s for the benefit of Sandhill Cranes. In accordance with the listings in the Migratory Bird Treaty 1916, the hunting of the Sandhill Cranes species has been regulated across Canada and the United States.

Many other tradings of this species have been regulated through CITES, abbreviated for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This has permitted the export of the Sandhill Cranes; however, it is limited, and only two of the subspecies are allowed to be exported.

Many places across the continent are marked as protected areas for the Sandhill Cranes. You can observe Sandhill Crane migration in this area since they occupy these areas in large populations. Not just Government bodies but many non-government organizations have also taken steps and measures to ensure the conservation of the Sandhill Cranes’ regional population and the subspecies.

There are several plans that have been implemented for the conservation of Sandhill Cranes.

Why is Feeding Cranes Prohibited?

People unintentionally put Sandhill Cranes at risk when they try to lure them and feed them. Accidental feeding also includes this concern as seeds are dispersed out of the bird feeders, placed to attract birds of the other species.

Feeding Sandhill Cranes has been illegal since 2002 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The following are some of the reasons why feeding Sandhill Cranes may not be the best idea.

1. When humans regularly feed Sandhill Cranes, they get acquainted with the presence of humans and develop an understanding and start associating humans with food. This may lead to the cranes approaching humans and snatching food whenever they spot it. It has been recorded on many rare occasions that Sandhill Cranes have pecked humans.

2. In some of the cases, these cranes who have become habituated to the presence of humans have approached the urban areas and have caused property damages, particularly properties with any reflecting properties, windows, or reflecting surfaces of vehicles. If they spot their reflection, it triggers them, and as territorial defense, they may scratch or cause harm to the property.

3. In the areas inhabited by people, the Sandhill Cranes may search garbage for food that could be hazardous.

4. In urban areas, the Sandhill Cranes have risks of crashing with the power lines.

5. Many Sandhill Cranes are killed on the roads of Florida by the passing vehicles as a result of them trying to enter urban areas to feed in people’s backyards.

6. When the Sandhill Cranes get acquainted with the urban areas, the younger Sandhill Cranes are at risk of being attacked by cats and dogs.

7. When the Cranes are fed a particular food regularly, their otherwise diverse diet gets disturbed and thereby disturbs the food chain.

8. Young Sandhill Cranes have died due to pesticide poisoning. The heavy use of pesticides in the lawn they may be fed on are very dangerous for the Sandhill Cranes.


While understanding the consequences of feeding Sandhill Cranes is important, we must also learn the measures that need to be taken so that Cranes can be kept in safe habitats and are not enticed to enter any urban areas. It is important to coexist with other organisms globally; only then will we have a balance in biodiversity.

● The probability of Cranes entering or inhabiting any urban areas decreases if the availability of food decreases. Therefore do not feed Sandhill Cranes and urge the people in your neighborhood to refrain from feeding the wildlife too.

● Covering any reflective surface outdoors is the best way to keep the Sandhill Cranes away while avoiding any property damage.

● Fencing your backyards helps you to avoid any contact with the wildlife. The bird feeders wouldn’t entice the Sandhill Cranes in your backyard.

Final Words

One of the longest bird migrations is the Sandhill Crane migration. Sandhill Cranes are long-distance migrants, and they prefer to migrate with their mating pair and offspring along with a vast group. They like to travel in flocks. These giant birds mate for life, and both the sexes incubate the egg and take care of the offspring together.

While we know that Sandhill Cranes travel long for food and breeding, another essential fact to know about them is that the three subspecies of it are pretty rare. For this reason, many measures and regulations have to be taken up so that these species can thrive and survive.

It is essential for us to understand that wildlife is best to keep at a distance. If the paths of the wildlife and the human’s confluence, then a massive imbalance in the ecosystem will be observed. Therefore, Sandhill Cranes and humans need to coexist to let the ecosystem thrive. You can set goals to bird-watch for these Cranes and record your results.


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