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Sandhill Crane
Grus canadensis
– Family
Authors: Tacha, Thomas C., Stephen A. Nesbitt, and Paul A. Vohs
Revisors: Gerber, Brian D., James F. Dwyer, Stephen A. Nesbitt, Rod C. Drewien, and Carol D. Littlefield

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Sandhill Cranes; Platte River, Buffalo Co., NE; March.
Sandhill Cranes; San Luis Valley, Alamosa Co., CO; October.

Sandhill Cranes are native to the wetlands and grasslands of North America (Tacha et al. 1994). These birds generally breed in open freshwater wetlands and shallow marshes, but each population uses a broad range of habitats -- including bogs, sedge meadows, fens, open grasslands, pine savannahs, and agricultural lands -- through the annual cycle.

Breeding Range

Non-Migratory Populations

Cuba. G. c. nesiotes in w. Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) are unique, nesting in dry upland habitat and occasionally occupying rocky, mountainous terrain (Walkinshaw 1949, Tacha et al. 1994, Aguilera et al. 2005). Drinking water comes from small streams, springs, and rain-filled pools. Most territories are in areas with sparse shrubs and trees, sometimes park-like and flat, and dotted with small clusters of pine (Pinus cubensis) or palm (Acoelorrhaphe species) trees. Grasslands, hammocks, and savannahs are used for feeding, roosting, nesting, and rearing young (Walkinshaw 1949, Tacha et al. 1984, Faanes 1990), and some individuals in the Cuba Population may never visit a marsh (Walkinshaw 1949). In at least some individuals, habitat selection appears to depend on breeding status. During the breeding season, breeding pairs use semi-closed habitats and non-breeders concentrate in open savannas (Aguilera 2002). During the non-breeding seasons, all cranes of the Cuban Population use similar savannah habitat.

Florida. G. c. pratensis primarily use freshwater marshes adjacent to grassy uplands, emergent paustrine wetlands, pasture, and forest-pasture transition areas (Tacha et al. 1994, Nesbitt and Williams 1990). Agricultural areas are heavily used during winter and early spring (Tacha et al. 1994). Cranes around Okefenokee Swamp use open herbaceous marsh areas throughout the year (Bennett 1989b). Within the nesting season, cranes have higher nesting density with higher herbaceous cover (Bennett 1989a). Prairies, pastures, other open (low growth) uplands, and herbaceous wetlands are favored along with transition areas between wetlands and upland habitats (Nesbitt and Williams 1990). Peanut and cornfields, and other agricultural areas (feed lots, dairy farms, etc.) are favored in winter and early spring. Forested edges surrounding these habitats are also used for shade during midday loafing in summer, and as a source of mast in fall.

Mississippi. G. c. pulla habitat includes pine savannas dominated by wiregrass, marshes, and pine plantations (Wilson 1987). Cranes nest in wet areas of open savannas, along wetland edges, pine plantations, and forest edges. Roosting occurs in freshwater and slightly brackish marshes, artificial ponds, and savannas (Valentine and Noble 1970, Gee 2005). Cranes at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge use the same area throughout the year but exhibit some seasonal movement between wetlands in summer and uplands in winter (Valentine 1981). In fall and winter, cranes roost mainly in the Pascagoula Marsh and fly to small cornfields or pastures to feed (Valentine 1981). Daily back-and-forth movements from nocturnal roosts to foraging areas are associated with high collision risks with fences and overhead power lines in some populations (see Conservation and Management, and Priorities for Future Research). Some birds fly to crop fields to feed, and some spend the day feeding in swamps and savannas within the breeding range.

Migratory Populations

Eastern Flyway Population. G. c. tabida nest in isolated, open marshes or bogs, surrounded by shrubs and forests or expansive grasslands (Walkinshaw 1973). They also use 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. Recent re-colonizers of Maine are using areas dominated by sphagnum moss (Sphagnum species), American woollyfruit sedge (Carex lasiocarpa), and scattered leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata; Melvin 2002).

In the s. Hudson Bay lowlands, Ontario, cranes use mixtures of open grasslands, open low shrubs, and low shrub physiognomic groups mixed with fens and fen pools. Non-breeders use more open grass sites. The most important characteristics are diverse compositions of perennial aquatic vegetation supported by seasonally stable water levels. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Sandhill Cranes nest in remote bogs and loaf and feed in bogs and adjacent upland openings and forest edges (Walkinshaw 1978). Upland openings and adjacent park-like forest stands are used increasingly as summer progresses. In central Wisconsin, Sandhill Cranes use floating sedge bogs, shallow grass and cattail marshes, and flooded aspen forests (Hamerstrom 1938). In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, they also breed in forested floodplains along the upper Mississippi River (Knutson 1997).

Mid-Continent Population. From behavioral observations around nests at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota: habitat use by G. c. tabida of the Mid-Continent Population is 67% wetland and 33% a mixture of grassland, brushland, woodlots, and a small amount of cropland (DiMatteo 1992). More northerly G. c. canadensis nest in arctic tundra (Boise 1976, Mallory 1987, Safina 1993). Sandhill Cranes nesting in central Alberta use open, wet sedge marshes adjacent to wooded areas (Carlisle 1982). In British Columbia, nesting occurs in mixtures of shrubs and herbaceous cover, including hardhack (Spiraea douglasii), sweet gale (Myrica gale), willows (Salix species), sedges (Cyperacaeae), and Labrador tea (Rhododentron species; Campbell et al. 1990). In the Northwest Territories, G. c. canadensis nest along eskers (long winding ridges of glacial sand and gravel), with 75% lichen cover, dominated by bryocaulon lichen (Bryocaulon divergens), and others (Flavocetraria nivalis, F. cucullata; Mallory 1987).

G. c. canadensis breeding further north in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska, typically nest in wet marshes, small ponds, or sedge meadow areas of tundra (Boise 1976). Broods spend most of their time in taller Elymus vegetation along slough banks, heath tundra, short-grass meadows, and in similar habitats in tundra areas of n. Canada (Walkinshaw 1973).

Sandhill Cranes nesting in Siberia use moderately wet tundra island mounds of hummock surrounded by open water (Watanabe 2006). The nesting habitat of G. c. rowani in the Mid-Continent Population has not been described specifically, but is likely similar to other Mid-Continent Population subspecies, and to G. c. rowani in other populations.

Rocky Mountain Population. G. c. tabida nest in isolated, well watered river valleys, marshes, and meadows at elevations above 1,500 m (Drewien 1973, Drewien and Bizeau 1974). From behavioral observations and marking individuals, these birds mostly nest along marsh edges in wet meadow-shallow marsh zones. In n. Utah and sw. Wyoming, Sandhill Cranes use pastures (55%), small grain fields (19%), riparian areas (8%), alfalfa fields (6%), corn-fields (3%), and a mix of other communities (9%; McIvor et al. 1992, McIvor et al. 1994a).

Lower Colorado River Valley Population. This population of G. c. tabida uses flat river valleys and basins. Habitat is often a mixture of wet meadows, marshes, riparian areas, and cultivated farmland (Great Basin Bird Observatory 2010.

Central Valley Population. G. c. tabida nest in flooded meadows and marshes in the Great Basin and in the Cascade, Blue, and Sierra Nevada mountains of Oregon, Washington, and California (Littlefield and Ryder 1968, Littlefield et al. 1994). Breeding occurs in marsh vegetation (Ivey 2007, Ivey and Dugger 2008) with emergent vegetation including broadleaf cattail, hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus), cattails (Typha species), and broadfruit bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum; Littlefield 1995a). In e. Oregon, Sandhill Crane breeding habitat includes wetlands adjacent to big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Littlefield 1999a). In ne. California, breeding habitat includes wet meadows with grasses, sedges, rushes (Juncus species), spikerush (Eleocharis species), hardstem bulrush, and broadleaf cattail (Littlefield 1995b). In Washington state, Sandhill Cranes use wet meadows with sedges, willows, hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), and timber oatgrass (Danthonia intermedia). In coastal British Columbia, nesting habitat is on heavily vegetated bulrush marshes in rangelands, and marshes and meadows with nearby coniferous forests (Cooper 1996) with foraging on sheltered shorelines near estuaries, bogs, marshes, fens, and lakes (Roessingh and Penn 2010).

Pacific Flyway Population. On Vancouver I., s. BC, pairs nest in open lightly forested sheet-bogs, and in isolated bogs, swamps, and marshes in remote rugged areas of the Coastal Western Hemlock bio-geoclimate zone (Campbell 1990, Cooper 2006). Though atypical, one nest found on Queen Charlotte I. was near the top of a mountain in the middle of logging slash, and adults with young were found deep in mature Sitka Spruce-Western Hemlock forest (Campbell 1990). Sandhill Cranes of the Pacific Flyway Population staging in the e. Copper River Delta, Alaska, roost primarily in wetlands associated with medium shrub and intertidal mudflat habitats, and feed primarily in wet meadow habitats (Herter 1982).

Individuals of the subspecies G. c. rowani, which may belong to the Central Valley Population or to their own unique population (Ivey et al. 2005), nest along the nw. Pacific Coast using islands and adjacent inland sites from se. Alaska southwest along the coast to s. British Columbia. Breeding habitat is primarily coastal boreal bogs (Harding 2010).

Spring And Fall Migration

Spring and fall migration stopover areas are critical sites between breeding and wintering areas where Sandhill Cranes briefly pause in migration to rest and acquire the necessary energy to continue. Historically, inter-annual fluctuations in productivity of natural prairies likely dispersed cranes widely during migration. In the past half-century, industrial scale agriculture has increased the density and predictability of high-energy waste grains, and reduced the number and variability of natural wetlands. Stopover areas now occur primarily near croplands where waste cereal grains are available adjacent to a permanent water body (Tacha et al. 1985a, Iverson et al. 1987), perhaps leading cranes to develop strong fidelity to particular areas and supporting concentrations that would likely exceed the carrying capacity of natural landscapes. Equally as important during migration is the availability of wetlands, which are used for roosting, loafing, and drinking. Critical protein and calcium are replenished by foraging on macro-invertebrates (Krapu and Johnson 1990, Reineke and Krapu 1986). Because cranes can be densely concentrated at stopover areas, geographically restricted dangers have the potential to affect many individuals. In particular, overhead power lines can pose substantial collision risks as birds move in flocks between roosting and foraging areas (see Conservation and Management). As wind resource areas are developed in migration areas, interactions with wind turbines may also become important.

Eastern Flyway Population. In Michigan, G. c. tabida concentrate in autumn on large marshes with little human intrusion (Walkinshaw 1973). Cranes roost in shallow water at night and use agricultural areas by day. They feed in alfalfa, pasture, or hay fields until wheat fields are harvested. Cranes later feed in newly planted fall wheat, until waste corn becomes available. In Indiana, roost sites are isolated, characterized by water ≤20 cm deep over a firm bottom (Lovvorn and Kirkpatrick 1981), and appear to be selected based primarily on a crane’s ability to sight human encroachment from the roost site, rather than proximity to human habitation. Fall migrants forage on winter wheat, waste corn, and fallow-pasture, but avoid soybeans (Lovvorn and Kirkpatrick 1982a). Spring migrants prefer unplowed corn stubble and fallow pasture.

Mid-Continent Population. Fall-staging cranes in se. Saskatchewan roost in shallow, open wetlands and feed in small grain fields (Stephen 1967). In e. North Dakota, cranes roost in shallow lakes and marshes, feed in harvested grain fields, and loaf in hayfields and pastures (Melvin and Temple 1983). In w. North Dakota, cranes roost in sites with large expanses of shallow water, with a soft substrate, away from bare shoreline, and forage in agricultural fields (Soine 1982, Krapu et al. 1984).

Optimum habitat complexes for spring migrants (G. c. tabida, G. c. rowani, and G. c. canadensis) staging in the North 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, as indicated by a combination of behavioral observations and telemetry (Iverson et al. 1987). Roosting areas along the river are characterized by having water channels 0.1 to 21 cm deep and up to 48 m wide, with no visual obstructions within 25 m (Folk and Tacha 1990). Adjacent cornfields are used during daily foraging, but use of a particular field depends on proximity to roost sites (closer fields are used more), the specific agricultural practices used, and the stage (i.e., recently harvested) of that agriculture (Sudgen et al 1988, Anteau et al. 2011). Cranes are most likely to use fields that are mulched and least likely to use tilled fields. Cornfields adjacent to large wet grasslands (Anteau et al. 2011) are typically selected.

In the North Platte River Valley, Sandhill Crane habitat use changed between 1980 and 1989, with increased use of corn fields (45.6-57.2%) and pasture (27.1-40.4%), and decreased use of alfalfa (20.2-0.2%) and wetlands (7.1-2.2%; Folk and Tacha 1991). Roost space apparently does not limit abundance of these cranes during spring staging in Nebraska (Folk and Tacha 1990). Rather, lack of wet-meadow habitats near rivers are most limiting in the North Platte and Platte River valleys, underscoring the need to preserve and manage complexes of essential habitats identified by Iverson et al. (1987).

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 central Alaska also roost in shallow wetlands and selectively use barley fields.

Rocky Mountain Population. G. c. tabida of the Rocky Mountain Population use the San Luis Valley, Colorado as their primary stopover area during spring and fall migrations. Within the San Luis Valley, most cranes use wetland areas along the Rio Grande River between Monte Vista and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges (Drewien et al. 1995). Both refuges and surrounding private lands are used for feeding on cereal grains (barley, wheat, oats; Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Laubhan and Gammonley 2001). Primary loafing and roost sites are wet meadows, the Rio Grande River, the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and Higel State Wildlife Area (Laubhan and Gammonley 2001).

Lower Colorado River Valley Population. This population of G. c. tabida uses the area surrounding Lund, NV, as a major stopover site. Specifics have yet to be described, but their habitat is known to include barley fields and nearby wetlands for roosting.

Central Valley Population. Migratory G. c. tabida using Malheur National Wildlife Refuge forage on grain fields (barley, oat, rye, and wheat) and roost and loaf in shallow ponds, sloughs, lakes, and canals (Littlefield 1986).

Pacific Flyway Population. Migration habitats are poorly described for this population, but are likely to be similar to those of other populations. Cranes migrating through Harney Co., OR, use native-grass meadows (Pacific Flyway Study Committee 2012).

Winter Range

Eastern Flyway Population. Wintering habitat for the Eastern Flyway Population of G. c. tabida is croplands, and to a lesser extent pastures in proximity (≤10 km) to roost sites. The acres of land under agriculture that had supported most of the wintering cranes of the Eastern Flyway Population have declined since Wenner and Nesbitt (1987) described habitats and movements of migratory cranes wintering in Florida. Sandhill Cranes are expanding their wintering range into areas of Georgia and other southeastern states (see Distribution). These habitats have yet to be described, but cranes likely use a mix of wetland areas for roosting and agricultural areas and open pastures for foraging.

Mid-Continent Population. Sandhill Cranes of the Gulf Coast subpopulation wintering along the Texas Gulf Coast roost in shallow open water marshes, with the highest density of cranes in estuarine intertidal areas; they feed in a variety of wetland areas (Anderson et al. 2000). Habitats used by G. c. tabida are primarily rice-growing areas of the Texas Gulf Coast (DiMatteo 1992, Guthery and Lewis 1979, Drewien and Lewis 1987).

All three subspecies (G. c. tabida, G. c. canadensis, G. c. rowani) of the Western subpopulation use habitat similarly, roosting on <20 saline pluvial lakes in w. Texas, and concentrating in particular at lakes 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. Saline lakes are the only available roosting sites in the area, so fresh water from natural springs in needed for drinking (Iverson et al. 1985a). These cranes selectively use sorghum stubble and salt lakes with freshwater springs nearby, while only minimally using cotton stubble, plowed fields, and brush lands (Iverson et al. 1985b, 1985c). In New Mexico, 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, cranes roost in shallow playa lakes, loaf in grasslands or wetlands, and feed on grain fields, especially corn (Perkins and Brown 1981).

Rocky Mountain Population. Wintering G. c. tabida in New Mexico frequent areas of livestock ranching, irrigated pastures, and cropland (Lewis et al. 1977). In the Rio Grande Valley, cranes frequent federal and state refuges and management areas, dairy farms with grains, and other private agricultural lands.

Lower Colorado River Valley Population. Sandhill Cranes wintering in Arizona and se. California use wetland areas of the Wellton-Mohawk and Imperial-Coachella valleys, the Mohave and Colorado River Indian Reservations, and the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge (Ohmart et al. 1985). Occupied wetlands include those with shallow water roosting areas with little vegetation, playa lakes, and sandbars along shallow rivers. Wintering areas are often closely associated with harvested grain fields, particularly cornfields. Foraging habitat also includes non-irrigated alfalfa, plowed, and milo fields (Ohmart et al. 1985).

Central Valley Population. This population of G. c. tabida shares a winter range with the Pacific Flyway Population in the Central and Imperial valleys of California (Lewis et al. 1977, Littlefield and Thompson 1979). The birds roost in a variety of wetlands, including pooled agricultural areas, while foraging primarily on agricultural fields.

Pacific Flyway Population. Historically (in the 1920s) cranes of the Pacific Flyway Population wintered near Red Bluff, Tehama Co., CA, and were reported by local residents to feed on blue oak (Quercus douglasii) acorns they found on and around the edges of open prairies (Grinnell et al 1930). From behavioral observations, for 14,755 G. c. canadensi in Merced Co., CA (their major wintering area) in 1969-1970, use of fields varied: alfalfa 51%, corn 19%, milo 17%, grasslands 9%, wheat stubble 5%, and cotton 0.4% (Littlefield 2008). Roost sites were in a variety of wetland habitats including rain-pooled agricultural fields, shallow freshwater lakes and ponds, alkaline lakes, and shallow river channels (Littlefield 2008).

Both G. c. canadensis and G. c. rowani consume waste grains in winter. Corn and wheat predominate, but milo, rice, barley, and oats, are also consumed when available. At Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California, feeding habitats include burned grasslands, pastures, mowed unharvested corn, unaltered and tilled corn stubble, recently planted winter wheat, alfalfa, disked barley, ungerminated trapper peas, clover, and burned rice fields.