Kingdoms / Animalia / Craniata / Aves / Gruiformes / Gruidae / Grus / Species

< > Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane (Click photographs/illustrations: full picture & further details)

Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane chick. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane pair. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane juvenile. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane chick. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane chick - shaking feathers. Click here for full-page view with caption. Grus canadensis - Sandhill crane chick preening. Click here for full-page view with caption. Sandhill crane distribution map. Click here for full-page view with caption.










Return to top of page

General and References

Alternative Names (Synonyms)

  • The Canadian crane (B474)
  • The Brown and Ash-coloured crane (B474)
  • La Grue de Mexique (B474)
  • La Grue de la Baye de Hudson (B474)
  • Ardea canadensis (B474)
  • Ardea (Grus) mexicana (B474)
  • La Grue brune (B474)
  • Brown crane (B474)
  • Grus pratensis (B474)
  • Grus fusca (B474)
  • Grus polopphaea (B474)
  • Grus americana (B474)
  • Grus cinerea longirostrus (B474)
  • Grus fraterculus (B474)
  • Grus schlegelii (B474)
  • Grus cinerea (B474)
  • de Canadeesche Kraanvogel (Dutch)(B474)
  • der Canadische Kranische (German) (B474)
  • La Grue du Canada (French)(B474)
  • Grue de Canada (French) (B107.w8)
  • Kanadakranische (German) (B107.w8)
  • Gruella Canadiense (Spanish)(B107.w8)
  • Little brown crane (B107.w8)
  • Little Canadian crane (B107.w8)
  • Lesser Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis) (B107.w8)
  • Canadian sandhill crane (Grus canadensis rowani) (B107.w8)
  • Greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida) (B107.w8)
  • Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) (B107.w8)
  • Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis)(B107.w8)
  • Cuban sandhill crane (Grus canadensis nesiotes) (B107.w8)

Names for newly-hatched


Names for non-breeding males or other colour-phases


Return to top of page


Species Author

Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)

Major References

B97, B107.w8, B480.4.w4, B474, B477, B481.II.9.w17, W2.Dec06.w10, W2.Nov2013.w8

Aviculture references: B31, B115.2.w7, D437, J23.17.w5, P1.1986.w4, P96.1.w1


(Further Reading)
Click image for full contents list of ELECTRONIC LIBRARY

Return to top of page

TAXA Group (where information has been collated for an entire group on a modular basis)

Parent Group

Specific Needs Group referenced in Management Techniques

  • --

Return to top of page

Aviculture Information


General Information:
  • Cranes are tall birds with a long beak and sharp claws, and can be aggressive. Their ability to injure humans must be considered in enclosure design and handling. (B115.2.w7, B197.9.w9)
  • Most cranes are wetland species, a few being primarily grassland species. They should be given the opportunity to wade and bathe, and to forage and/or dig for food in natural vegetation and soft soil substrates.
  • Good nutrition, with adequate protein and micronutrient levels, is essential for the general health of the cranes and for breeding.
  • Cranes form monogamous pairs and can be extremely territorial, particularly in the breeding season. Therefore it is important to house each pair of adult cranes in a separate enclosure from other cranes, and preferably not directly adjacent to another pair of cranes, particularly of the same species. Visual barriers should be put in place between crane enclosures before the breeding season
  • Care is required when introducing intended mates to each other, to avoid injury to one or both birds; formation of a good pair bond can take time.
  • Cranes are unlikely to breed if they feel insecure, such as in mixed species enclosures with hoofstock, or if there is no part of their enclosure which is free from daily human disturbance.
  • If possible, rotational pens should be provided, such that a pen can be left empty in alternate years, to reduce soil burdens of parasites and pathogenic microorganisms which may otherwise build up to problematic levels; this is particularly important if chicks are to be parent-reared, to avoid overwhelming exposure to e.g. gapeworm very early.

(B115.2.w7 D437, J23.17.w5, P1.1986.w4, P96.1.w1)

Species-specific information:

  • Can be kept in large open lawn areas with other wading birds. (B31)
  • Even pinioned birds can jump over 2 m high fences. (B31)
Management Techniques


Bird Husbandry and Management

Return to top of page

External Appearance (Morphology)

Measurement & Weight

Length Males are generally larger than females. (B107.w8) 86-96 cm. (B477)
Adult weight General --
  • Grus canadensis rowani average 4.079 kg (15 males); range 3.5 - 5.2 kg. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Grus canadensis canadensis average 3,746 kg (27 males). (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Grus canadensis tabida 5.3985 kg (six males). (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Grus canadensis pratensis two males were 4.081 and 4.988 kg. (B481.II.9.w17)
Female --
Newly-hatched weight Ten chicks of Greater sandhill cranes weighed 98.5 - 132.3 g (average 114.2g) on the day of hatching and 10 chicks of one day old weighed 102.2 - 133.5g, mean 116.1 g. (B480.4.w4)
Growth rate Cranes general: Crane chicks grow rapidly. Growth of the legs is particularly rapid in the first six weeks, with the wings then developing rapidly after this. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page


Adult Bill Male Black. (B477) Greenish-grey. (B97)
Variations (If present) Female: --
Eyes (Iris) Male Orange. (B107.w8, B477)
Variations (If present) Reddish to brownish. (B481.II.9.w17)
Juvenile Bill "Dull flesh" colour in young chicks, changing to pinkish-buff by 50 days, with the base "vinaceous cinnamon". (B481.II.9.w17)
Eyes (Iris) Grey-brown to reddish-brown. (B481.II.9.w17)

Return to top of page


Adult Male Black. (B97, B477)
Variations (If present) --
Juvenile Change from the flesh-colour of the legs of chicks to dark pinkish buff by about 50 days old. (B481.II.9.w17)

Return to top of page


Adult Male
  • Grey; head and neck fully feathered, except for bare red forecrown. (B107.w8)
  • Grey, with cap bare red skin, a few hair-like brown feathers to the rear, throat white, primaries black. (B477)
  • Moult of primary flight feathers can occur simultaneously so that the bird is temporarily unable to fly. (J50.87.w1)
Variations (If present)
  • Similar to adult, but wing-coverts, nape and back reddish brown towards edges. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Identification Notes

Cranes general: 
  • "Cranes are large to very large birds with long necks and legs, streamlined bodies and long, rounded wings." (B107.w8)
  • Compared to the day-herons, cranes have longer legs and hold their necks straighter. (B107.w8)
  • Compared to egrets, the body is proportionately larger. (B107.w8)
  • Compared to storks, the legs are longer, bodies lighter and bills smaller. (B107.w8)
  • In flight, cranes have their necks straight forwards and their long legs trailing behind, forming a straight line from the bill; in very cold weather the legs may be pulled in against the body. (B107.w8)
  • In flight, extended neck, tailing legs and sharp wing flaps. (B477)

Sandhill crane specific:

  • The only Grus spp. with a totally grey, fully-feathered neck and fully fethered head apart from the bare forecrown. (B107.w8)


  • Loud, low-pitched, rattling calls. (B107.w8)
  • "On the wing a high rolling and repeated 'gar-ooo-ooo-ooo' which has great carrying power." Also gutteral "tooks" and a more goose-like "awnk". (B477)

Return to top of page

Newly-hatched Characteristics

  • Precocial. Chicks are weak immediately after hatching, staying in the nest for the first 24 hours, although if threatened they can crawl, waddle and swim away at as early as six hours old. They are brooded for most of the time in the first two days and eat little if any food on the first day. (B480.4.w4) Eating small food items by the day after hatching. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Sometimes the larger chick will attack the smaller chick, but not always. (B480.4.w4) If they do start fighting, one parent may take each chick. (B480.4.w4)
  • Experimentally, by measuring the rectal temperature of chicks while lowering the ambient temperature from 35 °C to 25 °C, it was found that chicks of Grus canadensis rowani and Grus canadensis canadensis (Canadian and lesser) sandhill cranes, which hatch furthest north, were fully homeothermic at hatching. Greater sandhill cranes Grus canadensis tabida, nesting in temperate latitudes, were heterothermic at hatching and were homeothermic after (mean) nine hours, while Florida sandhills Grus canadensis pratensis, which hatch in subtropical latitudes, were poikilothermic at hatching and needed mean 24 hours to become fully homeothermic. (experiments were conducted after brushing and drying the down of each chick immediately after hatching). (P87.1.w4)
  • Dorsal brown, ventral pale tawny; throat white. (B107.w8)
  • Cranes general: The initial down is replaced by a second coat of down; this is replaced by feathers. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Detailed Anatomy

  • The trachea is coiled and fills most of the anterior half of the sternum. (B107.w8)
  • Cranes have ten functional primary flight feathers (with a vestigial 11th in most species), and 18-25 secondary flight feathers. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page


Reproductive Season

Time of year
  • Generally spring - April to June in the northern populations (mainly April in Alaska). More variable in the southern races; March to April for the Mississippi sandhills, mainly January to March for the Florida and Cuban cranes, although the breeding season in Florida extends from December to June. (B107.w8)
  • April to June. (B477)
No. of Clutches Repeated clutches have been reported, including three (and even once four) clutches for Grus canadensis pratensis - Florida sandhill cranes. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Nest placement and structure

  • A slight mound of green and dried wetland plants; the size of the nest varies depending on the materials available. In the tundra zone and in Florida and Cuba, nests are on drier sites. (B107.w8)
  • Grus canadensis nesiotes (Cuban sandhill crane) nests on dry ground. (B107.w8)
  • On the ground or in shallow water (few inches deep), a large, flat-topped nest, up to 2 m high, of vegetation. (B477)
    • The same nest site may be used in subsequent years. (B477)
  • Variable in size, e.g. 35.1 - 43.1 cm diameter along the Kashunuk River, Alaska, while another nest in 30.5 cm of water was 62 x 69 cm across and 8 cm tall. (B480.4.w4)
  • The same nest may be reused in subsequent years: a nest with two eggs in also contained remnants of egg shells. (B480.4.w4)
  • Usually the nest is in water, a large pile of vegetation, and surrounded by knee-high to shoulder-high vegetation. Nests of greater sandhill cranes  in Michigan were 35 - 274 cm across, but generally about 100 x 122 cm. (B480.4.w4)

Return to top of page

Egg clutches

No. of Eggs Average
  • At Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, for greater sandhill cranes over a period of three years, 30% of eggs were laid in one-egg clutches, 45% in two-egg clutches, 20% in three-egg clutches and 5% in four-egg clutches. Within a clutch, eggs were laid at intervals of 3.0 +/- 0.8 days, while intervals between clutches (clutches were removed to promote re-laying) averaged 10.1 +/- 4.1 days. (J54.2.w1)
  • Usually two, occasionally only one, and very occasionally three. (B480.4.w4)
Egg Description
  • Buff with brown blotches. (B477)
  • 96 x 61 mm. (B477)
  • Greyish-green with slight spotting, 83 x 55 mm, 135 g. (P91.1.w6)
  • Lesser sandhill: Usually elongate ovate to ovate, often long and slender, either greenish or brownish ground colour with markings very variable in size from small spots to large blotches. One set of 40 eggs averaged 91.9 x 58.67 mm (extremes 78.2 x 57.6 to 100.58 x 61.7); another set of 91 in Alaska averaged 90.82 x 57.52. Two newly-laid eggs were average 152.4 g and two near hatching, 119.1 g. (B480.4.w4)
  • Great sandhill crane newly laid eggs 165.1 - 219.2 g average 196.19g; at hatching, 149 - 168.5g, mean 156.9g. For 22 eggs the average measruements were 94.81 x 61.2 mm (76.0 - 104.6 x 58 - 65 mm). (B480.4.w4)

Return to top of page


  • 29-32 days. (B107.w8)
  • Incubation begins after the first egg has been laid. (B107.w8)
  • About 30 days. (B477)

Return to top of page


  • Asynchronous. (B107.w8, B480.4.w4) Typically hatch a day apart. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Two eggs were noted to take 19-20 hours from pip to hatch. (B480.4.w4)

Return to top of page


  • About three months. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • 50-90 days; varies with subspecies. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Sexual Maturity

Males 2-3 years. (B107.w8)
Females 2-3 years. (B107.w8)
  • Breeding at two years was confirmed in a wild female banded as a chick. (J437.17.w1)

Return to top of page


Feeding Behaviour

  • Probing and gleaning on land and in shallow wetlands. (B107.w8)
  • Graze in a manner similar to geese. (B107.w8)
  • Browse in alfalfa fields and corn (maize fields), taking fallen corn remaining after harvest. (B480.4.w4)
  • Take visible food from the ground or from above the surface, also dig with the bill for earthworms and other invertebrates. (B480.4.w4)
  • In Florida, seen feeding in freshly-burned areas, apparently taking scorched insects, lizards and other items. (B480.4.w4)
  • Mainly forage on land, particularly taking food from the surface of the soil, but also digging with the bill to extract food. Large items are broken up by piecing them or threshing them on the ground. Small bits of food are picked up with the bill tip, tossed in the air, caught further back in the bill, and swallowed. (B481.II.9.w17)
Newly-hatched Chicks are fed by the parent who pass them food items bill to bill initially. (B480.4.w4)

Return to top of page

Parental Behaviour

  • Both birds construct the nest, standing close together, pulling up vegetation and tossing it sideways or over their shoulder onto or towards the nest, usually in periods of up to 30 minutes at a time, generally in early or mid-morning, with one or two periods of nest building in any one day. As the nest develops, they clime into it, walk around it, even sit down. (B480.4.w4)
  • Cranes general: Both male and female build the nest. (B107.w8)
  • Cranes general: A secluded spot in the pair's territory is chosen, and the cranes unison-call there, then walk away from the selected place and toss nesting materials over their shoulders towards it. Returning to the nest site, they pull into the nest material which is within reach, then slowly walk away and toss more material towards the nest, repeating this sequence until sufficient nesting material has been gathered. (B107.w8)
  • Incubation by both male and female. (B477)
  • Both male and female incubate; most often the female incubates overnight, although sometimes the male incubates overnight. (B480.4.w4)
  • They straddle the eggs and often get up and sit down again several times before settling. (B480.4.w4)
  • Sometimes when leaving, one bird walks or flies off as the other arrives, such that it looks like a single crane. Other times the bird being relieved stands and preens for a while near the nest before leaving to feed. (B480.4.w4)
  • If a person or other threat approaches, the crane may lower its head so that it looks simply like a brown mass. If approached too closely, they will walk or fly away, soemtimes with a distraction display. Changes of incubator were seen once to seven times a day. (B480.4.w4)
  • usually they do not call at the nest, but sometimes they do, and one pair calling stimulates other pairs to do so also. (B480.4.w4)
  • Most calling occurs when birds are chhanging places for incubation. (B480.4.w4)
  • Cranes general: 
    • Both male and female incubate, changing over several times during the day, but with the female usually incubating during the night. (B107.w8)
    • About every 30-80 minutes, the bird which is incubating will rise and roll the eggs or adjust the nest. (B107.w8)
  • Parents are very attentive to their chicks. (B480.4.w4)
  • Chicks are aggressive to one another. Both chicks are brooded by the female at night. During the day, if there are two chicks, they are kept 4.6 - 15 m apart by their parents. Chicks vary in their personalities, some more inactive and timid, others lively and aggressive. Experiments confirmed that the chicks become less aggressive as they get older, and are more aggressive when food-stressed (food having been withheld for experimental purposes). In the wild, the aggression probably ensures that if food is scarce, one chick survives. (P87.1.w1)
  • One the chicks have hatched, the adults feed near the nest with the chicks, as well as leading their young to areas containing more food. (B480.4.w4)
  • Sometimes one adult (usually the male) will leave with the first-hatched chick while the remaining egg is being incubated by the female; other times the family stays together and leaves the nest all together once both chicks are ready to do so. (B480.4.w4)
    • If one hatches the day before the other, the older chick may be led away from the nest by one parent while the other is being brooded. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Generally the parents lead the chicks to drier ground - drier marsh, or fields, to feed them. Initially the parents offer individual food items to the chick with their bill. (B480.4.w4)
  • Cranes general: Adult cranes feed their chicks from soon after hatching. Both male and female bring small items to the chicks, presenting them by holding the food item at the tip of the bill or dropping the food in front of the chicks. (B107.w8)
  • Parents continue very attentive even during winter. While the young are drinking and digging in mud at a roost lake, at least one parent is always alert. However, the following breeding season, last year's young are not tolerated on the breeding territory. (B480.4.w4)

  • Cranes general: Adult cranes continue to care for their chicks throughout the pre-fledging period and may bring food to the chick for several months (although chicks also follow their parents to food sources from an early age). Juveniles remain with their parents through the non-breeding periods but leave at the start of the next breeding season or are driven away after the return to the breeding territory. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Social Behaviour

  • The size of a pair's territory can be very large: in years of poor food availability, territories of 500 hectares may be found. (J23.17.w5)
  • Territory size varies with crane density. (B480.4.w4)
  • Juveniles, once driven away by their parents, form small flocks, roosting on isolated marshes away from breeding cranes and feeding in open fields and marshes. They form pairs while in these flocks, leaving at about three years old to set up their own breeding territories. They may set up territories for a year or two before nesting for the first time. Once established, they return to the same territory each breeding season. (B480.4.w4)
  • If another crane lands in a breeding territory, the established male threatens and generally those not from a neighbouring territory will then fly off. In encounters with a neighbouring  individual this may escalate to actual fighting with stabbing bills, beating wings and clawing feet. Usually this is a short fight with the birds retreating to their own territories; fatal fights do occur. (B480.4.w4)
  • Occasionally, a breeding pair has been seen showing tolerance to another crane on their breeding territory, with this bird, presumably the previous' year's offspring, even roosting near to a parent. (B480.4.w4)
  • Outside the breeding season, sandhill cranes are found in flocks, usually of less than 50 or 100 birds; within these, the birds remain in pairs or family groups. (B481.II.9.w17)
  • Cranes general: 
    • Cranes are gregarious outside the breeding season, but separate for the breeding season. (B107.w8)
    • Juveniles which are not yet paired gather in non-breeding flocks and may be nomadic through the breeding period. (B107.w8)
    • By the end of their second year the young birds may have started to initiate pair bonds. (B107.w8)
    • Soon after the chicks fledge, families of migratory cranes gather in flocks at pre-migratory staging areas with dependable food and safe roosting sites. As the weather deteriorates, they move further south to join larger congregations of cranes, before setting out on the main migration. (B107.w8)
Inter-specific Breeding cranes have been seen chasing Great Blue herons, and Branta canadensis - Canada geese  from their territories. (B480.4.w4)

Return to top of page

Sexual Behaviour

  • Pair for life. (B477)
  • Although in general sandhill cranes appear to pair for life, they do form new pairs if their mate dies. Pairs also sometimes break up, with the birds re-pairing with other individuals. (J48.52.w1)
  • A study of Florida sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis pratensis) and greater sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis tabida) found that divorce was related to reproductive failure: 52.6% of pairs which failed to reproduce, but only 10% of pairs which were known to have reproduced successfully, divorced. (P87.7.w1)
  • In one study of a high density population of greater sandhill cranes Grus canadensis tabida, permanent "divorce" was seen in 12 of 69 pairs (17.4%) over a period of 13 years; the annual divorce rate was 4.8%. Most divorcing cranes chose a new mate providing a higher-quality territory. Divorced females often re-paired with a male which had recently lost his mate. (Th10.3.w3)
    • Temporary divorce can occur through asynchrony in pairs arriving at the breeding territory - the first crane to arrive may temporarily pair and dance with another bird, but leave that crane once its previous mate arrives. (Th10.3.w3)
  • In a study of a high density population of greater sandhill cranes Grus canadensis tabida, definite evidence of extra-pair paternity was obtained. Microsatellite markers were used to determine parentage of chicks and in five of 45 chicks (11%) there was evidence that the apparent, social parent, was not the genetic parent. In one pair, socially bonded for 12 years, neither chick was genetically related to the male. In two other chicks the social male was not the genetic father, and in one the social female was not the genetic mother; it was not possible to confirm for these three chicks whether this represented infidelity or mate replacement due to mate loss or divorce. (Th10.4.w4)
  • In general, copulation appears to be initiated by the female, approaching the male with head and neck held forward and out at a 45 degree angle, standing erect with wings spread out, the male then approaching quickly, the female crouching  and the male hopping gently onto the female's rump; the male's wings are half spread and slowly beating during the copulation, which lasts only a few seconds. After they stand next to each other and preen. Occasionally the pair will dance before or after copulation. (B480.4.w4)
  • Cranes general: Monogamous. Crane pairs stay together all year, and usually remain together until one partner dies. (B107.w8)
  • Cranes general: (B107.w8)
    • Cranes copulate repeatedly, starting several weeks before egg laying.
    • Mating usually occurs before sunrise, but can also occur at other times during daylight hours. 
    • In newly-established pairs, copulation is preceded by long bouts of dancing. Well-established pairs mate without any tension. 
    • The copulatory sequence is initiated by the male or the female. The initiating bird elevates its bill, arches slightly forwards and gives a low, purring call. The mate then shows similar behaviour. 
    • The male bird (usually) circles its mate with exaggerated steps.
    • The female spreads her wings. The male approaches, jumps onto her back with his wings flapping, and crouches.
    • The female elevates her tail, the male lowers his tail, and the cloacae of the two birds meet.
    • The male jumps forward off the female over her head and for a few seconds performs threat displays.
    • Both birds perform a long preening sequence.


Return to top of page

Predation in Wild

Return to top of page

Activity Patterns

  • On migration and during winter, roost in shallow water in a large group, each standing about six feet from its neighbours, on one leg, with the head tucked under the scapular feathers of one wing. Fly from the roost at about daybreak, either directly to the feeding ground if this is nearby, or initially to a nearby field to preen, dance, chase each other, then to the feeding ground a while later. (B480.4.w4)
  • Flocks approaching the roost fly in V-formations, diagonal lines and unordered masses, side-slipping to lose altitude. Botht hose already on the ground and those in arriving flacks call.. Very variable flock sizes; one description noted birds arriving in groups from two to 370, with more than 14,000 individuals arriving at Paul's Lake, Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge, Texas, on one evening in February. Some calls heard all night, most noise at dusk and dawn. In the morning, over a period of about an hour all the cranes flew onto the dry hillside nearby, and in the following hours, most flew off to feeding grounds, although during the morning also groups returned, flying to the water to drink, with youngsters digging in the mud while their parents were on alert. (B480.4.w4)
  • On arrival at their breeding territories, start nesting almost immediately. (B480.4.w4)
  • Breeding cranes may feed at some distance from the nest where incubation is occurring; the night roost for whichever bird is not incubating also may be some distance (one study noted 59 - 916 feet, average 461 feet) from the nest site, but also in shallow water. (B480.4.w4)
  • Breeding cranes, having left the marsh to feed, will often drink immediately on returning to the marsh, then preen and sometimes feed or bathe before returing to the nest to take over incubation. ((B480.4.w4))

Cranes general:

  • Roosting:
    • Cranes (except the Balearica spp.) generally roost in shallow water, occasionally on mudflats, sandbars or dry ground.
    • In flocks, cranes stand about a "peck distance" apart while roosting.
    • Most of the time they stand on one leg, switching legs several times during the night.
    • The head and neck are tucked onto or under one shoulder.
    • Cranes defecate at regular intervals while roosting.
    • On the roosting site they are still and silent unless disturbed.
    • If there is an unfamiliar sound, or one member of the flock gives an alarm call, all the birds become alert and are ready to fly.


  • At dawn, they wake, stretch, preen and drink.
  • In small groups, they fly to a post-roosting staging area, and preen more; cranes may gather at such a site from several roost sites.
  • Small and then larger groups move from the staging area to a feeding area for the day.
  • Generally, cranes feed for a long time in the early morning, then move to loafing areas.
    • At loafing areas, cranes preen and drink, and also engage in social displays, establishing a pecking order for families, and facilitating pairing of unattached birds.
  • In the middle of very hot days, they may fly, spirally high up on thermals.
  • Later they return to feeding and watering areas and forage.
  • They then move to pre-roosting staging areas before flying to a roost site.
    • On the pre-roost staging areas they may engage in social displays.


  • Cranes general: Diurnal. Outside the breeding season, cranes roost at night and feed during the day. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Natural Diet

Adult Diet

  • Omnivorous; diet varies depending on season and location, but often includes tubers, corms, berries, acorns, waste corn, other grains, insects, earthworms, snails and rodents. (B107.w8)
  • In areas where it is available, waste grain is important. (B107.w8)
  • Varied, including plant material (e.g. roots, seeds, berries, leaves; in winter wheat, barley flax, grasses) and animal matter (insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, also snakes, tadpoles, frogs, young birds, eggs). (B477)
  • Sandhill cranes take a variety of grains including wheat, barley, corn, rye, oats, sorghum, kaffir, milo, also alfalfa, other vegetation, roots, acorns, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, caterpillar, ants  and other insects, spiders, earthworms, snails,  corms of sedge (Carex sp.) or cottongrass (Eriophorum), bearberries and crowberries, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, small mammals (lemmings) and eggs, embryos and chicks of ground-nesting birds such as Lagopus lagopus - Willow ptarmigan and Anser caerulescens - Snow goose.  (B480.4.w4)
    • In an area of north Dakota, it was noted that sandhill cranes during their fall (autumn) migration fed mainly on grain - wheat, barley and corn (maize), both in harvested fields (on waste grain) and in fields which had not yet been harvested; they also took some insects. Damage to standing crops was reduced if fields which had been harvested were not immediately ploughed over but left with the waste grain on the surface for the cranes. (B480.4.w4)
    • Cranes have been seen eating the eggs and hatching goslings of Anser caerulescens - Snow goose when the geese had temporarily abandoned the nests due to disturbance, and to eat chicks of Lagopus lagopus - Willow ptarmigan. The stomach of one crane contained a whole, crushed, Dicrostonyx torquatus - Lemming.  (J441.80.w1)
    • Sandhill cranes have been seen grabbing and feeding on ducklings, shaking the ducklings violently and either spearing and shaking the duckling into several pieces, or swallowing a duckling whole. (J441.88.w1)

Return to top of page

Newly-hatched Diet

  • Newly hatched chicks are fed very small pieces of eggshell by the parents. (B481.II.7.w15)
  • Large numbers of invertebrates are eaten. (B480.4.w4) Earthworms are probably important in the diet of young chicks, also insects including grasshoppers. (B481.II.9.w17)

Return to top of page

Detailed Physiology Notes

Return to top of page

Range and Habitat

Distribution and Movement (Migration etc.)


Sandhill crane distribution map. Click here for full-page view with caption.

  • Lesser Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis) (B107.w8)
    • Arctic and subarctic North America and eastern Siberia; winters in southwest USA and central Mexico. (B107.w8)
    • Canadian and Russian arctic; in North America as far south as northern California; winters central California eastwasds to Texas and southwards to Mexico. (B477)
  • Canadian sandhill crane (Grus canadensis rowani) (B107.w8)
    • Subarctic Canada from British Columbia to northern Ontario; winters on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and in the southwestern USA and northcentral Mexico. (B107.w8)
    • Subarctic Canada. (B477)
  • Greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida) (B107.w8)
    • There are five breeding populations of this subspecies in the mid-continental North America, from Vancouver Island to the Great Lakes region; winters in north-central Mexico and from California to Georgia and Florida in the southern USA. (B107.w8)
    • Northern USA and southern Canada. (B477)
  • Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) (B107.w8)
    • Mississippi, USA. (B107.w8, B477)
    • May previously have been more widespread and is likely to have intergraded with Grus canadensis pratensis. (B107.w8)
  • Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) (B107.w8)
    • Georgia and Florida, USA. (B107.w8, B477)
  • Cuban sandhill crane (Grus canadensis nesiotes) (B107.w8)
    • Cuba and the Isle of Pines. (B107.w8, B477)


  • Northern races migrate: (B107.w8)

    • Western populations travel along the Pacific coast, east of the Cascade Range, through Intermountain West and through the central Rocky Mountains to areas in California, Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. (B107.w8)

    • Central populations travel across the Great Plains to areas in New Mexico and Texas. (B107.w8)

    • Eastern populations follow routes from the Great Lakes region to central Florida. (B107.w8)

  • Southern races are basically sedentary. (B107.w8)

  • Cranes general: 
    • Migratory cranes spend days to weeks at pre-migratory staging areas, integrating into the flock as well as building up fat reserves. (B107.w8)
    • To migrate, they feed for several hours early in the morning, then on a clear day with breezes, fly up, climbing in large circles by flap-flying and lifting on thermals, to as high as 2,00m, then assume a V-formation, wings extended, and glide south; after a certain amount of altitude has been lost, they spiral again to regain height, before gliding. Over water, without thermals, they flap-fly in V-formation. (B107.w8)
    • Young cranes stay close to their parents during migration and learn the route. (B107.w8)
    • Cranes call constantly during migration. (B107.w8)
Occasional and Accidental

Vagrant to Bermuda, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Turksand Caicos Islands, and the United Kingdom. (W2.Nov2013.w8)



Return to top of page


  • Temperate grasslands, and wetlands (bogs, marshes, swamps, fens and peatlands). (W2.Dec06.w10)
  • Mainly open wetlands, shallow marshes and wet meadows. (B107.w8)
  • Summer
    • The northern races spend the breeding season in various northern wetlands such as muskeg, sphagnum bogs, fens, sedge meadows, cat-tail marshes, lake shores and stream banks. (B107.w8)
    • Open prairies and tundra, in wet regions. (B477)
  • Migration: 
    • Large open marshes near agricultural areas, and submerged sandbars and the shallows of wide rivers; the Platt River in central USA is particularly important. (B107.w8)
  • Winter 
    • Coastal and riparian wetlands, wet meadows, playa lakes, oak savannas, agricultural fields and pastures. (B107.w8)
    • Wetlands and grasslands, also grain fields and farmland. (B477)
  • Florida and Mississippi cranes: "a matrix of shallow wetlands, wet prairie, pastures, and savanna." (B107.w8)
  • Cuban: relatively dry upland grasslands, patches of woodland by marshes, and in pine and palm savannas. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page


Intraspecific variation

  • Lesser Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis) (B107.w8)
    • Arctic and subarctic North America and eastern Siberia; winters in southwest USA and central Mexico. (B107.w8)
  • Canadian sandhill crane (Grus canadensis rowani) (B107.w8)
    • subarctic Canada from British Columbia to northern Ontario; winters on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and in the southwestern USA and northcentral Mexico. (B107.w8)
  • Greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida) (B107.w8)
    • There are five breeding populations of this subspecies in the mid-continental North America, from Vancouver Island to the Great Lakes region; winters in north-central Mexico and from California to Georgia and Florida in the southern USA. (B107.w8)
  • Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) (B107.w8)
    • Mississippi, USA. (B107.w8)
    • May previously have been more widespread and is likely to have intergraded with Grus canadensis pratensis. (B107.w8)
  • Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) (B107.w8)
    • Georgia and Florida, USA. (B107.w8)
  • Cuban sandhill crane (Grus canadensis nesiotes) (B107.w8)
    • Cuba and the Isle of Pines. (B107.w8)
  • The races canadensis, rowani and tabida probably form a cline. (B107.w8)

Return to top of page

Conservation Status

Wild Population -
  • Not globally threatened. Total population estimated as 500,000 individuals, making this the most abundant of all the crane species. (B107.w8)

  • Grus canadensis pulla (120 birds) and Grus canadensis nesiotes (300 birds) are endangered. (B107.w8)

  • Global population is estimated at 520,000–530,000 individuals and the global area of occurrence is estimated to be 100,000–1,000,000 km˛. (W2.Dec06.w10)


  • Historically, the breeding range of this species decreased due to hunting, agricultural expansion, drainage of wetlands and other changes of habitat. (B107.w8)

  • Since the 1930s the populations in the Great Lakes and Rock Mountains regions have increased substantially. (B107.w8)

  • Main threats are loss of and degradation of wetland habitats; there has been reduction of critical spring staging areas along the Platt River (central USA) due to river flow changes, water withdrawals and dam construction. (B107.w8)

  • Regulated hunting is allowed in the western population. (B107.w8)


  • Protection of key habitats in reserves, particularly in Cuba, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico. (B107.w8)

  • Wetland restoration (very important for the Great Lakes population). (B107.w8)

  • Regular surveys and extensive field studies. (B107.w8)

  • Since 1976, a recovery programme for Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) involving captive-rearing and release of birds since 1981 to supplement the population. (B107.w8)

  • A PHVA was prepared for Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) in 1992. (B107.w8)

  • A comprehensive habitat survey was carried out in Cuba in 1994. (B107.w8)

General Legislation --
CITES listing CITES II. (B107.w8)
Red-data book listing Least Concern [2004, 2008, 2009, 2012], due to the large global population (estimated at 520,000–530,000 individuals, and probably increasing), the large global range (estimated to be 100,000–1,000,000 km˛), and the fact that the population is not believed to be declining more than 30% in 10 years or three generations. (W2.Dec06.w10, W2.Nov2013.w8)

Return to top of page

Captive Populations


Return to top of page



Return to top of page