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

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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 Species

The 4 populations of G. c. tabida (Eastern, Rocky Mountain, Colorado River Valley, and Central Valley), the Pacific Coast population of G. c. canadensis, and the Mid-continent population (both Western and Gulf Coast subpopulations) of G. c. canadensis, G. c. rowani, and G. c. tabida, are migratory (Walkinshaw 1949, Lewis 1977, Tacha et al. 1984). Populations in Cuba (G. c. nesiotes), Florida (G. c. pratensis), and Mississippi (G. c. pulla) do not migrate (Lewis 1977).

Timing And Routes Of Migration

Migration Routes

Eastern Greater Sandhill Cranes breeding in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and s. Ontario migrate through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia to winter in s. Georgia and c. Florida (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Williams and Phillips 1972, Lewis 1977). The major spring and fall stopover area is Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in nw. Indiana (Crete and Toepfer 1978, Lovvorn 1980).

Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Cranes nesting in nw. Colorado, Idaho, 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 (Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Lewis 1977). Spring and fall stopovers are concentrated in the San Luis Valley of Colorado (Drewien and Bizeau 1974, Drewien et al. 1987).

Colorado River Valley population cranes breeding in ne. Nevada and sw. Idaho migrate through spring and fall stopover areas near Luno, NV, and winter in the Colorado River Valley, AZ (Lewis 1977, Drewien et al. 1987). Cranes from the Central Valley population migrate from nesting areas in Oregon and n. California to winter in the Central Valley, CA (Littlefield and Ryder 1968, Lewis 1977, Littlefield and Thompson 1979).

The Pacific Coast population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes migrate from nesting areas in s. Alaska through Oregon and Washington to winter in the Central Valley, CA (Lewis 1977, Herter 1982, Littlefield and Thompson 1982, Mickelson 1987). Major stopover areas during spring and fall occur in both Oregon and Washington (Littlefield and Thompson 1982) and w. Cook Inlet, Gustavus flats, and e. Copper River Delta areas of Alaska (Herter 1982, Mickelson 1987: Fig. 1).

Sandhill Cranes of the mid-continent population migrate from breeding areas in Canada west of Hudson and James bays, Alaska, and Siberia to wintering areas in s. and w. Texas, New Mexico, and central and n. Mexico (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Lewis 1977). These cranes concentrate briefly at many stopover areas during spring and fall migration (Buller 1967, Johnson and Stewart 1973, Lewis 1974), but 80% to 90% stop for up to 6 wk in spring in the North Platte and Platte River valleys of Nebraska (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973, Lewis 1977).

The Western subpopulation of the mid-continent population that nests in w. Canada, Alaska, and Siberia migrates through c. Alberta, s. Saskatchewan, w. portions of N. and S. Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, and e. portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado to wintering areas in w. Texas, e. and s. New Mexico, se. Arizona, and central and n. Mexico (Tacha et al. 1984). These cranes tend to stop in w. N. Dakota during fall and in more western portions of the Platte River Valley, and in the North Platte River Valley, during spring migration (Boise 1979, Tacha et al. 1984).

The Gulf Coast subpopulation of the mid-continent population that nests in nw. Minnesota, sw. Ontario, e. and n. Manitoba, and northcentral Canada migrates primarily through e. N. and S. Dakota and c. Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to wintering areas along the Gulf Coast of Texas (Guthery and Lewis 1979, Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha et al. 1984, 1986). These birds tend to stop in e. N. Dakota during fall and in central and more e. parts of the Platte River Valley during spring (Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha et al. 1984).

Migration Chronology

See Figure 5 . Eastern Greater Sandhill Cranes depart nesting areas late Sep-early Dec with peak departures in early Oct (Toepfer and Crete 1979, Crete and Grewe 1982). Fall migrants of this population stop at Jasper Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area from mid-Sep to early Dec, with peak numbers in late Oct (Walkinshaw 1949, Toepfer and Crete 1979); average fall stay is 9 d (range 6–12 d; Toepfer and Crete 1979). First arrivals on Florida wintering areas in late Oct with most arrivals by mid-Nov to mid-Dec (Toepfer and Crete 1979). Depart Florida late Feb to early Apr; most departures the first 2 wk of Mar (Nesbitt 1975a). Arrival at the Jasper Pulaski area early Mar to mid-Apr (peak numbers late Mar; Walkinshaw 1949); stay there an average of 12 d (range 1–17 d; Crete and Toepfer 1978). Arrival on nesting areas primarily early to mid-Apr (Walkinshaw 1949).

Populations of Greater Sandhill Cranes nesting in w. U.S. depart breeding grounds Sep-Nov (Lewis 1977). Cranes from the Rocky Mountain population arrive in the San Luis Valley late Aug, peak in Oct, leave in Nov (Drewien and Bizeau 1974). Northbound cranes arrive back in San Luis Valley early Feb, stay for about one month, depart late Mar–early Apr. Rocky Mountain population cranes arrive back on nesting areas in early Apr.

Smaller cranes of Pacific Coast population depart nesting areas and arrive on Alaskan staging areas late Aug-early Sep; peak numbers on staging areas mid to late Sep (Herter 1982, Mickelson 1987). Arrive in Central Valley of California in Dec; spring departure starts late Feb (Littlefield and Thompson 1982). Arrival on Alaska spring staging areas begins in mid-Apr, peaks late Apr-early May (Herter 1982); arrival on nesting areas also late Apr-early May (Mickelson 1987).

Cranes of the Mid-continent population nesting in Siberia, n. Canada, and Alaska leave breeding grounds starting late Aug; most gone by early Oct (Walkinshaw 1949, Lewis 1977). Fall migration through c.Alaska primarily in Sep, peak mid-Sep (Kessel 1984). Movement through se. Saskatchewan early Aug to mid-Oct; peak numbers in Sep (Stephen 1967, Tacha et al. 1985a). Migration through N. Dakota from Sep to Nov, peak in mid-Oct (Melvin and Temple 1980, Carlisle and Tacha 1983). Peak migration through Oklahoma late Oct (Lewis 1974). Arrive on Texas wintering areas Oct to Jan (Melvin and Temple 1980, Tacha and Vohs 1984), peak numbers there in early Feb (Iverson et al. 1985a). Depart Texas wintering areas late Feb to early Mar (Walkinshaw 1949). Arrival on primary spring staging area (N. Platte and Platte River valleys, NE) in late Feb; numbers peak mid to late Mar. Depart Nebraska early-mid Apr (Walkinshaw 1949, Melvin and Temple 1980, Iverson et al. 1987). Spring migration in se. Saskatchewan late Apr (Iverson et al. 1987); arrive at nesting areas in Manitoba late Apr (Melvin and Temple 1980), in Alaska early to mid-May (Walkinshaw 1949, Mickelson 1987, Tacha et al. 1987a).

Nonbreeding subadults 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 subadults (Tacha and Vohs 1984), suggesting families migrate faster in fall than subadults do. Breeding adults and 2-yr-old Rocky Mountain population cranes arrive on nesting areas before yearlings (Drewien 1973).

Migratory Behavior

Migration flights usually begin 1.5 to 5.0 h after sunrise, stop 2.0 h before to 0.25 h after sunset (1–10 h of flight) but occasionally continue after dark; fly an average of about 250 km at speeds of 23 to 83 km/h (depending on wind speed and direction; Melvin and Temple 1982). Migrate by flapping (unidirectional powered flight), spiraling (soaring upward on thermals in a spiral), and/or gliding (unidirectional with altitude loss). Migrate in V formation at altitudes of up to 3,600 m; most flights at < 1600 m, 75% between 150 and 760 m. Generally migrate with clear to partly cloudy skies; rarely with headwinds.

Control And Physiology Of Migration

Fall migration usually begins with clear skies, strong northwest (tail) winds, and cool temperatures; spring migration departures are heaviest with clear skies and southeastern winds (Melvin and Temple 1982). The final stimulus to migrate often comes from preflight posturing and takeoff of nearby birds, and/or seeing or hearing flocks of cranes passing overhead.