Photo: Sandhill crane in flight

Most sandhill cranes live in freshwater wetlands, feeding on plants, grains, mice, snakes, insects, and worms.

Photograph by Marc Moritsch

Map

Map: Sandhill crane range

Sandhill Crane Range

Audio

Fast Facts

Type:
Bird
Diet:
Omnivore
Average life span in the wild:
20 years
Size:
Body, 31.5 to 47.2 in (80 to 120 cm); wingspan, 5 to 6 ft (1.2 to 1.3 m)
Weight:
6.5 to 14 lbs (3 to 6.5 kg)
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Crane compared with adult man

Sandhills are the most common of all the world's cranes. A fossil from the Miocene Epoch, some ten million years ago, was found to be structurally the same as the modern sandhill crane. Today, these large birds are found predominately in North America. They range south to Mexico and Cuba, and as far west as Siberia.

Migratory subspecies of sandhill cranes breed in the Northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Each winter they undertake long southern journeys to wintering grounds in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and California. En route, more than three-fourths of all sandhill cranes use migratory staging areas in a single 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch along Nebraska's Platte River.

Most sandhill cranes live in freshwater wetlands. They are opportunistic eaters that enjoy plants, grains, mice, snakes, insects, or worms. They often dig in the soil for tubers and can sometimes cause significant crop damage, which brings them into conflict with farmers.

The birds are naturally gray and their heads are topped with a crimson crown. Some cranes preen themselves by adding mud to their feathers and thus taking on a temporary brown hue. This may happen because the birds use their bills to probe for food in muddy wetland soil.

During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as "unison calling." They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating but all year long.

Sandhill cranes usually nest in wetlands and create a structure from whatever plants may be at hand. Females typically lay two eggs, which both parents incubate. Males take responsibility for defending the nest.

Bird Features

  • Illustration: Great horned owl

    What's That Bird?

    Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.

  • Photo: A brown pelican

    Pelican

    Explore the pelican’s prodigious pouch. Find out how these famous fishers bring home the catch of the day.

  • Photo: Close-up of a duck

    Bird Pictures

    Get right up close to 12 colorful new bird galleries, featuring photos from My Shot members and classic art from the NG archives.

  • Photo: Close-up of a hummingbird

    Backyard Birds Quiz

    How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.

Please select a test to run

Animals