STATUS: Historical breeder. Uncommon in winter and rare in spring and fall in Gulf Coast region. In other regions, uncommon to rare in winter, early spring, and fall, though can be locally common in Tennessee Valley. Mississippi subspecies (G. c. pulla), which is the most likely to breed in Alabama, listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: Standing three to four feet tall with a wingspan 6.5 – 7 feet, the sandhill crane is considered one of North America’s tallest birds. Mature birds are grey while immature are described as pinkish brown. Both mature and young birds sport a red cap beginning above the bill continuing beyond the eye to the crown of the skull.
DISTRIBUTION: Once greatly reduced east of the Mississippi river, sandies are more evenly distributed today due to regulations on hunting and protection of habitat. Flocks migrate south from Arctic tundra to winter from California and across all the Gulf States. Most birds over wintering in Alabama can be more commonly found in the Tennessee Valley, along the Alabama River corridor, and coastal counties.
HABITAT: Sandhill cranes inhabit many varied habitats from Arctic tundra to wet prairies. Commonly observed using ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, and freshwater marshes they frequently make use of croplands and salt marshes.
BEHAVIOR & FEEDING HABITS: Migrating in large flocks, sandhill cranes follow the common waterfowl migration corridors feeding on amphibians, reptiles, insects, and small mammals, as well as fruits, grain, and other plant material. Cranes are spectacular dancers. Both male and female cranes bow, droop their wings, skip, hop, and leap as high as 15 to 20 feet into the air during courtship. Dancing is not confined to breeding or to pairs however and may continue throughout the year. Hundreds of birds may dance at the same time while bugling, making a spectacular sight.
LIFE HISTORY & ECOLOGY: Sandhill cranes nest on mounds of vegetation, often surrounded by water. The female usually lays two eggs, and young birds stay with their parents for nearly a year. Six subspecies of sandies exist and make them the most abundant of the world’s cranes. The Mississippi subspecies is listed as endangered. The five remaining subspecies: Greater, lesser, Canadian, Florida, and Cuban are being monitored but are not listed on the as endangered species. It is not uncommon to observe cranes in northeast Alabama migrating and resting along the Tennessee Valley from October through April. Sandhill cranes have been used to foster parent whooping crane eggs and young for reintroduction of that species. Some state game and fish agencies consider sandhill crane a game bird species with open and closed seasons of hunting.
REFERENCES: Audubon’s Birds of America. Popular Edition, the MacMillan Company, New York, 1950. pg.131
Johnsgand Pa. 1983 Cranes of the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Wikimedia.com (BirdLife International 2004),
Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
AUTHOR: Stuart Goldsby, Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries