From robins to blackbirds to warblers, birders have all different species they watch for to note when spring really arrives. The sandhill crane is one of these seasonal indicator species in many areas, and they’re an amazing bird to watch no matter what the time of year.
Name: Sandhill Crane
Scientific Name: Antigone canadensis
Scientific Family: Gruidae
Habitat: These cranes prefer open fields, wetlands, agricultural fields, meadows and prairies that range from somewhat dry to very wet, though damp areas are preferred. In some areas, they can be found in suitable suburban habitats, such as golf courses or school fields. In winter, they are more likely to be found in wetter habitats, including bogs and shallow riverbeds.
Range: These are widespread birds found year-round in parts of the Caribbean, central and northern Florida and southeastern Georgia. During the summer breeding season, they disperse throughout North America as far as Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, and in winter, they are found in Texas and northern Mexico. During the spring and fall migration seasons, birders anywhere between those two range extremes may spot sandhill cranes.
These birds are easy to identify by their tall stature, heavy rump with drooping “bustle” feathers and their small heads with straight, stout bills. They range from gray to buff to reddish-tan depending on how their body feathers may be stained, and a heart-shaped red patch on the forehead is always distinctive and contrasts with pale, whitish cheeks and throat. The eyes are orange, and the legs and feet are gray-black. In flight, the neck is held straight and the long legs extend well past the tail.
I’ve been fortunate to see these birds many times and with very close study, and they’re always impressive. Loyal to their partners as they mate for life, they’re typically found in pairs or small groups, and during migration and winter, they form much larger flocks, numbering tens of thousands of birds. They are stately and deliberate in their movements as they pace about, foraging for insects, mollusks, grains, seeds, berries and whatever other tasty tidbits they find. Their honking, bugle-like calls are equally distinctive.
What can be most charming about these birds are their gangly chicks, appropriately called colts for their long legs and ability to walk, even swim, shortly after hatching. Baby sandhill cranes are a rich golden tan and covered in fluffy down, with shorter bills than their parents, yet they forage alongside the adults as they learn what foods make the tastiest tidbits. As the babies mature, they lose their downy feathers and their necks and legs lengthen, gradually approaching adult proportions. Young sandhill cranes will venture off on their own to find their own mates when they are 9-10 months old, and moving on to raise their own families and delight further generations of birders.