Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGruiformes
FamilyGruidae
GenusGrus (1)
SizeHeight: 0.8 - 1.2 m (2)
Wingspan: 1.5 – 1.8 m (2)
Weight3 - 6.5 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3). Subspecies Grus canadensis nesiotes and G. c. pulla listed on Appendix I and G. c pratensis listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The most abundant crane species on Earth, the sandhill crane is renowned for its spectacular mass migrations (2). A large-bodied bird, the sandhill crane has an impressive wingspan, long black legs and a relatively short bill (4). Like other cranes, this species has relatively modest colouration, with grey plumage on the body, becoming white or paler grey on the face, chin and upper throat (2) (4). During the spring and summer, the plumage of sandhill cranes in regions with iron-rich mud acquires a rusty brown hue, due to the bird’s habit of preening the reddish mud into the feathers. This artificial colouration is lost in the autumn when the feathers are moulted (2). In contrast to the adult, juvenile sandhill cranes are cinnamon brown, becoming grey during the first year. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the sandhill crane is the bare patch of red skin, which covers the forehead and crown. This species produces a range of vocalisations, including a single, loud call to warn or threaten conspecifics, breeding pair synchronised calls, which the strengthen pair bond, and a low, soft call to maintain contact while foraging (2). Although the taxonomy of this species is debated, there are generally six commonly recognised subspecies of the sandhill crane, which differ greatly in size and weight and occupy separate geographical areas (2).

The sandhill crane has a large range extending throughout North America, from northern Canada, south to northern Mexico. Populations are also found in Cuba and extreme north-eastern Siberia (5). The subspecies can be divided into migratory and non-migratory populations: the lesser sandhill (Grus canadensis canadensis); the greater sandhill (Grus canadensis tabida); and the Canadian sandhill (Grus canadensis rowani), are migrants and breed across the northern United States and Canada, as well as north-east Siberia, and winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico. In contrast, the non-migratory populations: the Florida sandhill (Grus canadensis pratensis); the Mississippi sandhill (Grus canadensis pulla); and the Cuban sandhill (Grus canadensis nesiotes), have more restricted distributions within the southern United States, which are essentially defined by their common names (2) (5).

The sandhill crane occupies a variety of open habitats, occurring predominantly in freshwater wetlands such as bogs, sedge meadows and fens, as well as grasslands, pine savanna and cultivated areas (5).

An omnivorous species, the sandhill crane uses its versatile bill to take plant material, such as tubers, seeds and berries, as well as small animals, such as insects, worms, snakes and mice (2) (5). This species can be extremely destructive to agriculture, and flocks can remove nearly all planted seeds from the fields on which they descend. The chicks grow rapidly on a high-protein diet, mainly comprising insects and other invertebrates (2). Like other crane species, the sandhill crane exhibits extravagant dancing behaviour, which includes bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing and wing-flapping. While dancing has an important role in courtship, it is performed outside the breeding season by individuals of all ages, and is thought to aid motor development, counteract aggression, relieve tension and strengthen the pair bond (2).

The sandhill crane is typically a monogamous species, and once formed, breeding pairs usually mate for life (6). Resident populations usually breed earlier in the year than the migrants, producing eggs from January up until August. In contrast, migratory populations arrive at the breeding grounds in the spring and lay eggs from early April to late May (6). Nests are constructed from local vegetation, formed into a low mound with a central cup in which the eggs are deposited (5) (6). A clutch of 1 to 3 eggs is laid, which are incubated by both sexes for a period of 29 to 32 days. The young fledge at around 67 to 75 days, but do not become independent of the parents until they are 9 to 10 months old (5) (6). Migratory populations leave the northern breeding grounds between early autumn and early winter (6), making an extensive southward journey that can cover almost 6,500 kilometres (4). During migration, this species forms large flocks, which concentrate in vast numbers at certain areas during the journey known as staging grounds (6).

The sandhill crane is one of the few crane species that is not currently threatened (6). Nevertheless, while the population of this species as a whole is abundant and increasing, two subspecies, the Mississippi sandhill and the Cuban sandhill crane, are listed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, while the Florida Sandhill Crane is listed as a threatened species by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (2). These small resident populations have been seriously affected by habitat loss and degradation, as well as hunting (5).

While the more widespread migratory populations have a much more favourable status, they were historically affected by hunting, agricultural expansion and wetland drainage that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries (5). Today there is concern that development around staging and wintering grounds could have a significant detrimental effect on the migratory population. As large numbers of migrants concentrate within relatively small areas, they are particularly vulnerable to threats such as habitat loss and degradation (2) (5).

Since the mid-1950s, a large number of conservation measures and programmes have been developed and implemented to benefit the sandhill crane. Hunting of this species is regulated throughout the USA and Canada, in accordance with its listing under the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 (5). In addition, international trade is regulated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which permits limited export of all subspecies except the Mississippi sandhill and the Cuban sandhill, for which all international trade is prohibited (3). The sandhill crane occurs in a large number of protected areas, many of which have been designated specifically for this species. In addition, several management plans have been developed and implemented for regional populations and subspecies, along with a variety of conservation initiatives employed by Non-Governmental Organisations (2) (5). These concerted conservation efforts are proving highly successful for ensuring the growth of the sandhill crane population (5).

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. International Crane Foundation (September, 2009)
    http://www.savingcranes.org/sandhillcrane.html
  3. CITES (September, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. Meine C.D. and Archibald, G.W. (1996) The Cranes: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K. Available at:
    http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/cranes/gruscana.htm
  6. Tacha, T.C., Nesbitt, S.A. and Vohs, P.A. (1992) Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca.