Greater Sandhill Crane

Scientific name: Grus Canadensis Tabida
Classification: Water bird
Size: Height – over 3 ½ feet, Wingspan – 6 to 7 feet, Weight – 12 pounds or more



Sandhill cranes are tall birds with long legs and long necks. They fly with their legs and necks outstretched. The bill is long and pointed. Their plumage is mainly gray, often stained rust, with whitish cheeks, chin, and upper throat. Tufts of feathers hang over the rump. Adults have a bare, red patch on the top of the head. Juveniles are brown and lack the bright red head.


Life span:

The lifespan of sandhill cranes may reach 20 to 25 years. They are one of the longest-lived birds in North America.



Sandhill cranes utilize a variety of habitats including open freshwater wetlands, shallow marshes, bogs, open grasslands, savannahs, cropland, wet meadows, tundra, and riparian habitats. In Nevada, preferred breeding and roosting habitats are large river valley floodplains and interior basins.



The greater sandhill crane is found in north America, Cuba, and eastern Siberia. The nevada population breeds in elko county, migrates south through eastern Nevada, and spends the winter in Arizona and California along the lower Colorado river.


Natural history:

Sandhill cranes are migratory and fly in v-shaped, j-shaped, or single line formations during migration. Prior to southward migration for winter, they congregate on staging grounds, generally within a day’s flight from their breeding area, where they become social after the breeding season and begin feeding and roosting together. They remain highly social throughout the winter. The two largest staging areas in Nevada, and good places to view sandhill cranes, are in ruby valley and lamoille valley located southeast of elko. During the spring migration, the birds have a stopover in lund, Nevada where they stay for several weeks. Contact the Nevada department of wildlife for the best times and places to view cranes. Sandhill cranes become territorial in the breeding season. Also, they have a number of vocalizations. The contact call is soft and low-pitched, and is used to keep in contact with other cranes even when they are unable to see each other in tall grass or reeds. Unison calls are made by a pair of birds standing in a particular formation close to each other calling a synchronized song. This call generally reinforces the pair bond between males and females. A guard call is used to warn other cranes of danger or to threaten other cranes and consists of a single, loud call.


Food habits:

The sandhill cranes are omnivores, eating a wide variety of food items including foliage, roots, tubers, seeds, grain, berries, snails, crayfish, worms, insects, mice, frogs, snakes, and fish. They forage for food on land and in shallow wetlands, sometimes using their bills to probe and dig in the ground for food.



Sandhill cranes form pair bonds at about age three to four and they mate for life. The pair establishes a breeding territory in which they build their nest. The nest is constructed from surrounding vegetation and may reach a diameter of over five feet. Generally, two eggs are laid. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 28 to 30 days. The young are tended by both parents and fly at around 60 days. One of the chicks usually out- competes the other for food and parental protection and is the only chick to survive.



Sandhill cranes are state protected in Nevada and receive federal protection under the migratory bird treaty act.


Reason for status:

Threats to the sandhill crane include loss and degradation of wetland habitats as well as conversion of grain fields to other crops.


Management & conservation:

Preservation and restoration of critical breeding, migration, and wintering habitats is essential to the conservation of sandhill cranes. Biologists and land- owners must work together regarding wildlife habitat management practices as much crane habitat is found on private land. Reproduction and population trends have been monitored by the Nevada department of wildlife since 1976 and habitat requirements are also being studied. In addition, sandhill cranes are targeted for conservation in state management plans, the Nevada partners in flight bird conservation plan, and shorebird conservation planning efforts.


Fun facts:

  • Sandhill cranes display an interesting dancing behavior, which is thought to play a role in the formation of pair bonds prior to mating. Dancing consists of a series of vertical bounds with the wings partially spread and the head bowed. Many can be seen dancing at once in a flock.
  • Cranes have an unusual windpipe that forms a loop within their breastbone. This produces their unique, loud and resonating calls.
  •  Fossils found in Nebraska show that sandhill cranes have been living in north America since the pliocene era about 9 million years ago. This species has existed on earth longer than any other bird species.