Sandhill cranes are very 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. These are slate gray birds, often with a rusty wash on the upper parts. Sometimes wild sandhill cranes appear brown in color because they often wipe dirt and clay onto their feathers for camouflage. Adults have a pale cheek and red skin on the crown. Their legs are black. Juveniles are gray and rusty brown, without the pale cheek or red crown. Sandhill cranes give loud, rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds and often strung together. They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away.
Sandhills are the most common of all the world's cranes. Today, these large birds are found predominately in North America. They range south to Mexico and Cuba, and as far west as Siberia.
Sandhill cranes breed in open wetland habitats surrounded by shrubs or trees. They nest in marshes, bogs, wet meadows, prairies, burned-over aspen stands, and other moist habitats, preferring those with standing water. Breeders gravitate toward the edges between wetland and upland habitats, while non-breeders may prefer open, grassy sites. Sandhill cranes winter in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, roosting on shallow lakes or rivers at night and spending the day in irrigated croplands, pastures, grasslands, or wetlands.
Clutch Size: 1-3 eggs
Number of Broods: 1 brood
Incubation Period: 29-32 days
Sandhill cranes build their nests from the dominant vegetation—such as cattails, sedges, burr reeds, bulrushes, or grasses—using dried plant materials early in the season and adding green materials later on. To a foundation of larger materials they add a cup-shaped hollow lined with smaller stems or twigs. Both mates may gather material, tossing it over their shoulders to form a mound. The female is usually the one to stand on the mound and arrange the material. Nests may be 30-40 inches across and 4-6 inches high; those built over water are larger than those built on dry land. Sandhill cranes usually nest in small, isolated wetlands—such as marshes, bogs, and swales—or within about 300 yards of the edges of larger ones. They prefer areas with vegetation growing in standing water, but some nest on dry ground. It’s not known whether males or females choose the nest site. If one member of a pair dies, the surviving member may reuse its previous nesting area with a new mate. Sandhill crane chicks can leave the nest within 8 hours of hatching, and are even capable of swimming.
In the wild: 15-25 years
In human care: 20-30 years
The omnivorous sandhill crane feeds on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water, gleaning from the surface and probing with its bill. Its diet is heavy in seeds and cultivated grains, but may also include berries, tubers, small vertebrates, and invertebrates. Non-migratory populations eat adult and larval insects, snails, reptiles, amphibians, nestling birds, small mammals, seeds, and berries.