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Sandhill Crane
Grus canadensis
– Family
Authors: Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Vohs

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Breeding Range

Includes Migration and Winter ranges, where relevant. 

Eastern Population (G. c. tabida)

Nesting:  Isolated, open, marshes or bogs, surrounded by shrubs and forests (Walkinshaw 1973). Also expansive grasslands, usually wet marshy hay meadows or burned-over aspen stands in grass succession, with small but frequent pools or ponds of shallow water or streams, sandy and peat soils, far from human habitation. In the s. Hudson Bay lowland, Ontario, cranes use mixtures of open grasslands, open low shrubs, and low shrub physiognomic groups mixed with fens and fen pools. Nonbreeders prefer more open grass sites. Most important characteristics: diverse wetland types, composition and structural diversity of aquatic vegetation, and seasonally static water levels. In the Upper Peninsula, MI, birds nest in remote bogs; loaf and feed in bogs and adjacent upland openings and forest edge. Upland openings and adjacent park-like forest stands used increasingly as summer progresses.

Migration: In Michigan, concentrate in autumn in large marshes with little human intrusion (Walkinshaw 1973). Roost in shallow water at night and feed in alfalfa, pasture, or hay fields until wheat fields are harvested; later feed in newly planted fall wheat; later still in fall, waste corn becomes available and the birds prefer corn stubble.

In Indiana, isolated roost sites with water less than 20 cm deep over a firm bottom (Lovvorn and Kirkpatrick 1981). Ability to sight human encroachment appears more important than proximity to human habitation for roost site selection; fall migrants prefer corn stubble and avoid soybeans, winter wheat, and fallow-pasture areas (Lovvorn and Kirkpatrick 1982). Spring migrants prefer unplowed corn stubble and show preference for fallow-pasture areas. These cranes generally fly the minimum distance required from the roost; also learn undisturbed locations and perennial site fidelity develops.

Winter:  Wenner and Nesbitt (1987) described habitats and movements of wintering migratory cranes in Florida.

Rocky Mountain And Colorado River Valley Populations (G. c. tabida)

Nest in isolated, well watered river valleys, marshes, and meadows at elevations above 1.5 km (Drewien 1973, Drewien and Bizeau 1974). Most nest in wet meadow-shallow marsh zones along the marsh edge. Largest concentrations in fall in Idaho at Gray’s Lake and Teton Basin (Drewien and Bizeau 1974) where cranes feed in grainfields, primarily barley. Wintering birds in New Mexico frequent areas of livestock farming with irrigated pasture, cotton farming, and truck gardening (Lewis 1977). In the Rio Grande Valley, frequent refuges and dairy farms with grains.

Central Valley Population (G. c. tabida)

Nest in flooded meadows and marshes in the Great Basin and s. Cascade Mountains (OR, CA; Littlefield and Ryder 1968). Nesting habitat includes open meadows with scattered stands of hard-stemmed bulrush, cattails, and broad-fruited burreed (Littlefield 1981c). Much nesting in the Great Basin with surrounding vegetation of sagebrush and scattered junipers. Nesting habitat outside the basin surrounded by sagebrush, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir. The cranes feed in irrigated pastureland, milo, wheat, barley, rice, and corn fields as well as saltgrass flats during winter.

Cuban Population (G. c. nesiotes)

Cranes in w. Cuba and on the Isle of Pines inhabit dry, isolated regions and may never visit a marsh (Walkinshaw 1949). Drinking water comes from small streams, springs, and rain-pools. Most territories sparingly grown to shrubs and trees, sometimes parklike, often rather flat; birds also found in rocky and mountainous terrain.

Pine- or palm-dotted areas and large savannas used for feeding, roosting, nesting, and rearing of young (Walkinshaw 1949). On Isle of Pines, predominant habitat is pines (scattered thinly) mixed with a few palms. Some of the arroyos have thick growths of trees about them, others are surrounded by areas much like great parks, thinly covered with short grass and few trees.

Florida Population (G. c. pratensis)

Focal habitats are freshwater marshes in Florida and Georgia (often associated with grassy uplands). In Okefenokee Swamp, open, less wooded herbaceous marsh areas preferred, little or no use of drier upland habitats (Bennett 1989).

In Florida: prairies, pastures, other open (low growth) uplands, and herbaceous wetlands. Transition areas between wetlands and upland habitats favored (Nesbitt and Williams 1990). Peanut and corn fields, and other agricultural areas (feed lots, dairy farms, etc.) favored in winter and early spring; also use forested edges surrounding these other habitats. Forest edges used for midday loafing (shade) in summer and as a source of mast in the fall.

Mississippi Population (G. c. pulla)

In fall and winter, cranes roost mainly in Pascagoula Marsh and fly to small cornfields or pastures to feed (Valentine 1981). Some of the birds fly to crop fields to feed and some spend the day feeding in swamps and savannas within the breeding range. In spring, summer, and fall, the birds feed on the breeding grounds in savannas, swamps, and open pine fields (Valentine and Noble 1970). From the 1950s to present, savannas declined from 74% to 14% of habitat in the area, woodland increased from 18% to 70%, agricultural land from 8% to 9%, and urban lands from a trace to 6% (Smith and Valentine 1987).

Pacific Coast Population (G. c. canadensis)

Little known about nesting habitat; probably similar to that of mid-continent population. Pacific Coast Sandhill Cranes staging in the e. Copper River Delta, AK roost primarily in wetlands associated with medium shrub and intertidal mudflat habitats, and feed primarily in wet meadow habitats (Herter 1982). Little known about their wintering habitat.

Mid-Continent Population (G. c. canadensis, tabida, rowani)

Nesting:  Breeding territories in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, AK, typically located in wet marsh or sedge meadow areas of tundra (Boise 1976). Broods spend most of their time in taller Elymus vegetation along slough banks, heath tundra, and short-grass meadows. Similar habitats in tundra areas of n. Canada (Walkinshaw 1973). Carlisle (1982) documented cranes nesting in c. Alberta, and found cranes breeding in open, wet, sedge marsh adjacent to wooded areas.

Migration:  Fall-staging cranes in se. Saskatchawan roost in shallow, open wetlands and feed in small grain fields (Stephen 1967). In e. N. Dakota, such birds roost in shallow lakes and marshes, feed in harvested grain fields, and loaf in hayfields and pastures (Melvin and Temple 1983). Soine (1982) found that cranes staging in w. N. Dakota prefer to roost in sites with large expanses of shallow water, with a soft substrate, and away from bare shoreline.

Optimum habitat complexes for spring migrants staging in the N. Platte River Valley include a river or shallow wetland roost site, an interspersion of 30% to 70% corn stubble, 5% to 40% pasture, ≥ 13% alfalfa, and ≥ 1 wetland within 4 km of the roost site (Iverson et al. 1987). Krapu et al. (1984) found similar habitats important in Platte River Valley during spring. Changes in availability of off-river wetlands and corn stubble may have brought reduced use of the N. Platte River Valley from 1980 to 1989 (Folk and Tacha 1991). Roost space apparently does not limit abundance of these cranes spring-staging in Nebraska (Folk and Tacha 1990), underscoring need to preserve and/or manage complexes of essential habitats identified by Iverson et al. (1987). Lack of wet-meadow habitats near rivers most limiting in N. Platte and Platte River valleys.

In spring, northbound cranes stopping in se. Saskatchewan roost in shallow wetlands and selectively use wheat stubble during the day (Iverson et al. 1987). Birds staging in c. Alaska also roost in shallow wetlands and selectively use barley fields.

Winter:  Roost on < 20 saline pluvial lakes in w. Texas, concentrating on those with at least 1 freshwater spring (Iverson et al. 1985a). Over 95% of the variation in use of these lakes can be explained by the number of freshwater springs and percentage of surrounding area in sorghum stubble. These cranes selectively use sorghum stubble and the salt lakes; minimally use cotton stubble, plowed fields, and brushlands (Iverson et al. 1985b).

Sandhill Cranes wintering along the Gulf Coast of Texas roost on shallow open water marshes, and spend the day in coastal prairie, scrub oak brushland, freshwater marshes, and sorghum stubble fields (Guthery 1975). In New Mexico, the birds roost in shallow river or lake areas and spend most of the day in irrigated croplands and pastures (Walker and Schemnitz 1987). In se. Arizona, roost (night) in shallow water in playa lakes, loaf (day) in grasslands or wetlands, feeding in grain (especially corn) stubble fields (Perkins and Brown 1981).