Sandhill Crane

Antigone canadensis
Range Map

Though Sandhill Cranes (family Gruidae) are tall, leggy birds, they are better known as grazers than as waders. From the aggressive attacks I’ve witnessed by Red-Winged Blackbirds in Utah and North-Eastern California, the cranes may prey on nests while in their breeding range. Unlike their taller cousin the Whooping Crane, their overall population is not threatened, and while their cousins migrate in pairs or small family groups, Sandhill Cranes fly in formation in large flocks, often so high as to go unnoticed except for their haunting calls from 5,000 to 12,000 feet overhead.

Science recognises six subspecies of Sandhill Cranes, three of which are listed as endangered (Cuban, Florida, and Mississippi Sandhill Cranes). Prior to 2010, these birds were classified in the genus Grus, but genetic studies convinced scientists to revive the genus Antigone, first proposed by German naturalist Ludwig Reichenbach in 1853:

  • A. c. canadensis, or Lesser Sandhill Crane, breeds in northeastern Siberia and northern Alaska east across arctic Canada. They spend winters in the southwestern USA south to north-central Mexico.
  • A. c. rowani, or sometimes Canadian Sandhill Crane, breeds in subarctic and boreal Canada from northern British Columbia and southern Northwest Territories east to Ontario. They spend winters in the southwestern USA east to Texas and south to northern Mexico.
  • A. c. tabida, or Greater Sandhill Crane, breeds from southern British Columbia, east to the western Great Lakes and south locally to Nevada, Colorado, and Tennessee. They spend winters in the United States from California east to Georgia and northern Florida.
  • A. c. pulla, or Mississippi Sandhill Crane, is nonmigratory, and lives on the Gulf slope of Mississippi.
  • A. c. pratensis, or Florida Sandhill Crane, is nonmigratory and lives in southeastern Georgia south to central Florida.
  • A. c. nesiotes, or Cuban Sandhill Crane, is nonmigratory and lives in Cuba and the Isle of Pines.

I’ve enjoyed meeting these birds both on their breeding and winter grounds. In Utah, I’ve had distant views of parents with their young colts in tow. At the Salton Sea in southeastern California, I’ve watched over the years the wintering flocks grow from dozens to hundreds. Perhaps no location where I’ve visited has been more productive than in the middle Rio Grande Valley. Here, among the several reserves hosting wintering Sandhill Cranes, is Bosque del Apache NWR. The winter spectacle of cranes and geese has declined in recent years, but in 2003, when I first visited the reserve, I witnessed the morning liftoff of thousands of cranes and geese. The resulting heart-pounding awe was unforgettable.

Recently, while enjoying an epic expedition through western North America in 2022, I encountered a Sandhill Crane sitting on a nest only a few yards from the road as I traveled north from Wyoming into Montana. I never in my life expected to see one of these great birds on a nest.

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