Sandhill Crane: This large wading bird has a gray body, white cheeks, chin, and upper throat, and a bright red cap. It has a dark bill, yellow eyes and black legs and feet. It has a direct steady flight on heavy and labored wing beats, with a slow down stroke and a rapid and jerky upstroke. Flies in V or straight line formations. Diet is heavy in seeds and cultivated grains. Sexes are similar.
Range and Habitat
Sandhill Crane: Breeds from Siberia and Alaska east across Canada to Hudson Bay and to western Ontario, with isolated populations in the Rocky Mountains, northern prairies, Great Lakes, and in Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. Winters in California, and from Arizona to Florida. Prefers marshes, prairie ponds, and marshy tundra; also found on prairies and grain fields during migration.
The taxonomic order GRUIFORMES (pronounced groo-ih-FOR-meez) is composed of six bird families including the trumpeters of South America, the Limpkin, and the cranes.
There are fifteen species of cranes in four genera in the Gruidae (pronounced GROO-uh-dee) family. They occur on all continents except Antarctica and South America.
In North America, there are three species of cranes in one genus that have occurred. These include the numerous Sandhill Crane, the endangered Whooping Crane, and a vagrant from Eurasia, the Common Crane.
Sandhill Cranes (and other crane species) are known for their courtship displays and pair bonding rituals that resemble dancing. Some displays are carried out during the breeding season while pair-bond displays may be done at any time.
Tall, stately birds, cranes are large with long legs and a long neck. They have short tails, medium-length bills, and long, broad wings.
Adult North American cranes have mostly white plumage (the Whooping Crane), slate-gray plumage (the Sandhill Crane), or gray and black plumage (the Common Crane). All species have red markings on the head and yellowish bills. Juvenile cranes lack the red markings and have brownish plumage.
In North America, cranes occupy freshwater marshes and other open wetland habitats, with most populations breeding in Canada and wintering in the southwestern United States. Except for populations of Sandhill Cranes in Florida, they are mostly seen in the midwestern and western regions. The Whooping Crane has an especially limited range, breeding in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, and wintering in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Cranes are long distance migrants; populations of Sandhill Cranes that breed in Siberia migrate all the way to North America.
Cranes occur in large flocks during migration and winter together; however they mostly associate as mated pairs. They forage for small creatures such as frogs and crustaceans by walking through open wetlands to snatching prey items with their bills.
While Sandhill Cranes have large, healthy populations, the Whooping Crane is an endangered species. Formerly widespread, this tallest of North American birds was reduced to just sixteen individuals during the nineteen forties by habitat destruction and hunting. This main population has increased to around 200 birds since then as a result of strict protection. Recovery programs for this species have attempted to establish other flocks in Idaho, Wisconsin, and Florida with varying degrees of success.
The population of Whooping Cranes reintroduced in Wisconsin had to be taught to fly to wintering grounds in Florida. This was done by successfully leading the young birds to Florida with an ultralight airplane.