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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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Figure 1. Distribution of Sandhill Cranes in North America.
Figure 5. Sandhill Crane: annual cycle of breeding, molt and migration.

Nature Of Migration In The Subspecies

Populations in Cuba (G. c. nesiotes), Florida (G. c. pratensis), and Mississippi (G. c. pulla) are not migratory (Lewis et al. 1977). All other populations (Eastern Flyway, Mid-Continent, Rocky Mountain, Lower Colorado River Valley, and Central Valley), subpopulations (see Distribution), and subspecies comprising those populations and subpopulations (G. c. tabida, G. c. canadensis, G. c rowani) are migratory. Cranes have major migration pathways within which large numbers of individuals travel annually. However, off-route migrating individuals are observed almost anywhere throughout the continental U.S.

Timing and Routes Of Migration

Migration routes are described below for each population. Where breeding populations overlap at migratory stopover sites and where breeding area affiliations are poorly known, the origin of some individuals can be difficult to ascertain. For all populations, timing of fall migration, and thus arrival on the wintering grounds, varies greatly, depending on annual differences in winter severity. Non-breeding and unpaired cranes begin fall migration before families (pairs with young (Carlisle and Tacha 1983, Tacha et al. 1985a), but families with young arrive on wintering areas before unpaired cranes (Tacha and Vohs 1984), suggesting families migrate faster in fall than unpaired cranes. During mild winters migration is later and migration distances can be shorter, with migration for the Mid-Continent Population truncated in the northern Great Plains of the U.S. for some individuals.

Timing of spring migration is more regular, enabling predictable viewing for researchers, managers and the public. For example, cranes of the Mid-Continent Population arrive with such regularity that Audubon Nebraska is able to host an annual spring Crane Festival in Kearny, Nebraska. During spring migration, pairs often arrive first on the breeding area, accompanied by offspring produced the previous year; unpaired birds  arrive a few weeks later (Drewien 1973, Littlefield 2001a, Campbell et al. 1990).

Eastern Flyway Population

The Eastern Flyway Population has recently expanded eastward from New Jersey to Maine. No data on migration are available from those areas, so all information comes from sources west of that expansion. G. c. tabida breeding in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and s. Ontario migrate through Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to winter in s. Georgia and central Florida (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Williams and Phillips 1972, Lewis et al. 1977, Jones et al. 2005). The two major fall and spring stopover areas used by the Eastern Flyway Population are the Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in nw. Indiana and the Hiawasse State Wildlife Refuge in se. Tennessee (Crete and Toepfer 1978, Lovvorn 1980).

Fall migration can occur as early as Sep and as late as Jan, depending on winter severity (Ohio Division of Wildlife 2013). G. c. tabida often depart nesting areas from late Sep to Dec, with peak departures in early Oct (Lewis et al. 1977, Toepfer and Crete 1979, Crete and Grewe 1982; Downs 2004; Ohio Division of Wildlife 2013). Peak numbers at Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area occur in late Oct (Walkinshaw 1949, Toepfer and Crete 1979). The average fall stay at migration stop-over areas is 9 d (range 6–12 d; Toepfer and Crete 1979). Fall migrants first arrive on Florida wintering areas in late Oct, with most arrivals by mid-Nov to mid-Dec (Toepfer and Crete 1979). Migrant cranes depart Florida late Feb to early Apr, with most departures in the first 2 wk of Mar (Nesbitt 1975a). Spring migrants arrive at the Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in early Mar to mid-Apr (peak numbers late Mar; Walkinshaw 1949) and remain there an average of 12 d (range 1–17 d; Crete and Toepfer 1978). Members of the Eastern Flyway Population arrive on nesting areas primarily in early to mid-Apr (Walkinshaw 1949).

Mid-Continent Population

G. c. tabida breeding in nw. Minnesota and s. Manitoba migrate through w. Minnesota, e. South Dakota, e. Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma south to the Gulf Coast region of Texas (DiMetteo 1992, Guthery and Lewis 1979, Drewien and Lewis 1987, Krapu et al. 2011). Fall staging prior to migration occurs in central and w. Saskatchewan (69%), North Dakota (16%), sw. Manitoba (10%), and nw. Minnesota (3%; Krapu et al. 2011). Arrive on breeding grounds in nw. Minnesota in late Mar and leave in Oct (Dimatteo 1992).

G. c. canadensis of the Mid-Continent Population migrate from breeding areas in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia to wintering areas in Texas, New Mexico, and central and n. Mexico (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Lewis et al. 1977, Drewien et al. 1996). These cranes concentrate briefly at many scattered stopover areas during spring and fall migration (Buller 1967, Johnson and Stewart 1973, Lewis 1974), then concentrate (up to 80% to 90% of the population) during a stop for up to 6 wk in spring in the North Platte and Platte River valleys of Nebraska (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Lewis et al. 1977). Some G. c. canadensis of the Mid-Continent Population migrate through Colorado, stopping in the San Luis Valley with cranes of the Rocky Mountain Population; these are believed to be cranes from the w. Canada-Alaska and w. Alaska-Siberia subpopulations (Benning et al. 1997, Krapu and Brandt 2008, Krapu et al. 2011).

The Western subpopulation of G. c. canadensis of the Mid-Continent Population (see Distribution) breeding in w. and central Canada, w. Alaska, and ne. Siberia migrate through central Alberta, s. Saskatchewan, portions of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, and eeastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado to wintering areas in w. Texas, New Mexico, se. Arizona, and central and n. Mexico (Tacha et al. 1984). These cranes tend to stop in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and w. North Dakota during fall migration, and in more western portions of the Platte River Valley and the North Platte River Valley. Large concentrations occur from North Platte to Grand Island North Dakota during spring migration (Boise 1979, Kessel 1984, Tacha et al. 1984).

G. c. canadensis of the Mid-Continent Population (see Distribution) breeding in e. and n. Manitoba, and n.-central Canada migrate primarily through Manitoba, e. North and South Dakota, central Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to wintering areas along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Kansas and ne. Mexico (Guthery and Lewis 1979, Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha et al. 1984, 1986). These birds tend to stop in e. North Dakota and s. Saskatchewan during fall, and in central and more eastern parts of the Platte River Valley during spring (Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha et al. 1984).

Cranes of the Mid-Continent Population nesting in Siberia, n. Canada, and Alaska begin to leave breeding grounds starting late Aug (Walkinshaw 1981) and most depart by early Oct (Walkinshaw 1949, Lewis 1977, Walkinshaw 1982). Fall migration through central Alaska primarily occurs in Sep, peaking in mid-Sep (Kessel 1984). Movement through se. Saskatchewan occurs in early Aug to mid-Oct peaking in Sep (Stephen 1967, Tacha et al. 1985a). Migration through North Dakota occurs from Sep through Nov, peaking in mid-Oct (Melvin and Temple 1980, Carlisle and Tacha 1983). Peak migration through Oklahoma occurs in late Oct (Lewis 1974). Usually cranes arrive on Texas wintering areas from Oct to Jan (Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha and Vohs 1984), with peak numbers in early Feb (Iverson et al. 1985a).

Cranes depart Texas wintering areas in late Feb to early Mar (Walkinshaw 1949). Arrival on stopover areas (North Platte and Platte River valleys, Nebraska) occurs in late Feb, where numbers peak from mid- to late Mar. Cranes depart Nebraska from early to mid-Apr (Walkinshaw 1949, Melvin and Temple 1980, Iverson et al. 1987). Spring migration through se. Saskatchewan occurs in late Apr (Iverson et al. 1987), with arrival at nesting areas in Manitoba soon after (Melvin and Temple 1980), and in Alaska from early to mid-May (Walkinshaw 1949, Mickelson 1987, Tacha et al. 1987a). The earliest cranes arrive on breeding grounds in Siberia is early May (Krechmer et al 1978).

Rocky Mountain Population

G. c. tabida nesting in nw. and w. Colorado, s.-central and e. Idaho, w. Montana, Utah, and Wyoming migrate through central and s. Colorado and n. New Mexico to winter primarily in the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, se. Arizona and south into n. and central Mexico (Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Lewis et al. 1977, Drewien et al. 1996). Spring and fall stopovers are concentrated in the San Luis Valley of s.-central Colorado (Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Drewien et al. 1987, 1999).

Other important spring and fall overnight stopover sites include Harts Basin and the Grande Valley of central w. Colorado along the Green River, Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Utah, and Cochiti and Jemez reservoirs in New Mexico (Stahlecker 1992, Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Stahlecker 1997). Fall arrival in the San Luis Valley begins in late Aug and peaks in Oct, when 90% of the population has arrived. Cranes begin to leave in Nov (Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Drewien et al. 1995, 1999) and arrive on the wintering grounds shortly thereafter in Nov and early Dec. Spring migrants arrive back in the San Luis Valley Feb-Mar, stay for about one month, then depart early to mid-Mar or early Apr (Peterson and Drewien 1997) and subsequently arrive on nesting areas soon after. Notably, the percentage of cranes of the Mid-Continent Population among groups of birds stopping over in the San Luis Valley is not consistent between years, making it difficult to estimate the size of only the Rocky Mountain Population (Benning et al. 1997).

Lower Colorado River Valley Population

G. c. tabida breeding in ne. Nevada and sw. Idaho migrate through spring and fall stopover areas near Lund, Nevada (Lewis et al. 1977, Drewien et al. 1987, Rawlings 1992). Precise migration timing is unknown for this population, but is likely to follow other populations with fall migration beginning in Sep and spring migration beginning in Mar.

Central Valley Population

G. c. tabida of the Central Valley Population migrate from nesting areas in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and ne. California to winter in the Central Valley of California (Littlefield and Ryder 1968, Lewis et al. 1977, Littlefield and Thompson 1979). Cranes migrating through Washington often use Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Shilapoo-Vancouver Lake Wildlife Resource Area, and Sauvie I. as stop-over areas (Littlefield 2001a). These cranes are believed to be the coastal nesting G. c. rowani of British Columbia and possibly Alaska, but may be a mix of subspecies (Ivey et al. 2005, Harding 2010). Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is also an important fall stopover area for G. c. tabida of the Central Valley Population (Littlefield 2001a, Littlefield and Ivey 2002).

Fall migration usually occurs between Sep and mid-Oct (Pogson and Lindstedt 1991, Engler and Anderson 1998). Cranes leave their wintering areas in late Feb and early Mar and generally arrive on breeding areas during the same months (earliest arrival documented at Malheur NWR is 7 Feb; Littlefield 1990). Those breeding in coastal British Columbia (G. c. rowani) arrive on breeding areas in late Feb, whereas inland breeding (G. c. tabida) birds arrive in early Mar (Campbell et al. 1990).

Pacific Flyway Population

G. c. canadensis migrate from nesting areas in sw. Alaska through Oregon and Washington to winter in the Central Valley of California (Lewis et al. 1977, Herter 1982, Littlefield and Thompson 1982, Mickelson 1987). Major stopover areas during spring and fall occur in both Oregon (i.e., Harney Co.) and Washington (Moses Lake and Ephrata, in Grant Co., and near Mansfield in Douglas Co.; Littlefield and Thompson 1982). Cranes wintering near Red Bluff, CA, use Sauvie I. in the Columbia River, nw. of Portland, OR, during both spring and fall migration (Littlefield 2001a).

The route of cranes travelling through British Columbia is poorly known, although known stop-over areas include White Lake, Lac Le Jeune, Becher’s Prairie, Kispiox valley, Nig Creek, Liard Hot Springs, and the Okanagan Valley (Subcommittee on the Pacific Flyway Population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes of the Pacific Flyway Study Committee 1983, Cooper 1996). Cranes nesting further north than British Columbia use numerous stopovers including the Upper Cook Inlet, Gustavus flats, Stikine River Delta and e. Copper River Delta areas of Alaska (Herter 1982, Mickelson 1987, Subcommittee on the Pacific Flyway Population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes of the Pacific Flyway Study Committee 1983).

These cranes depart nesting areas and arrive on Alaska staging areas late Aug to early Sep; peak numbers on staging areas are found mid- to late Sep (Herter 1982, Mickelson 1987). Thereafter, the Pacific Flyway Population migrates primarily in Sep and Oct, arriving in the Central Valley of California in Oct and Nov. Spring departure starts in late Feb (Littlefield and Thompson 1982) with arrival at Alaska spring staging areas beginning in mid-Apr, and peaking in late Apr-early May (Herter 1982; Mickelson 1987).

In both spring and fall, individuals of the Pacific Flyway Population of G. c. rowani migrate along the Pacific coast from se. Alaska and coastal British Columbia to wintering areas in the n. California Central Valley, with a major stopover area on Sauvie I. in the Columbia River (Littlefield 2001a). These cranes may belong to their own unique population, or be part of the Central Valley Population (Ivey et al. 2005). Cranes migrating along the Pacific coast often stopover in Vancouver, Canada, and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and Woodland Bottoms areas of Washington (Littlefield 2001a). These cranes are thought to be G. c. rowani, but which population they belong to has not been identified.

Migratory Behavior

Sandhill Cranes generally migrate with clear to partly cloudy skies, and with a tailwind. To conserve energy, they rarely migrate against headwinds except when approaching wintering areas (e.g. from 21,736 cranes, 12,092 [55.6%] arrived against a headwind in nw. Texas (Littlefield, 2010). Migration flights usually begin 1.5 to 5.0 h after sunrise and conclude for the day 2.0 h before to 0.25 h after sunset (1–10 h of flight), but Sandhill Cranes will continue migration well after dark if they are near their destination (Nesbitt and Hintermister 1984).

Sandhill Cranes fly an average of about 250 km/d during migration at speeds of 23 to 83 km/h, depending on wind speed and direction (Melvin and Temple 1982). To conserve energy, Sandhill Cranes, similar to many raptors (Rappole 2013), often gain altitude by circling tightly in rising thermal air currents when conditions permit. When sufficient altitude is achieved, they glide on outstretched wings as they descend to an adjacent thermal, where they are again lifted high to repeat the process. Most flights involve linear (sometimes V) formations and occur at <1600 m (75% between 150 and 760 m), though gliding flights between thermals, and powered flights made when thermals are unavailable, can occur at altitudes of up to 4,600 m.

Control And Physiology Of Migration

Fall migration usually begins with clear skies, strong NW (tail) winds, and cool temperatures. Spring migration departures are greatest with clear skies and SE winds (Melvin and Temple 1982), or SW winds in nw. Texas, New Mexico (RCD) and the Central Valley of California (CDL). The final stimulus to migrate often comes from preflight posturing, takeoff of nearby birds, and seeing or hearing flocks of cranes passing or circling overhead. False migration attempts during fall and spring are common in the Rocky Mountains when birds depart along migratory paths only to return hours later.