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Greater Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis
Sandhill Cranes dancing

One of the most notable birds on the Refuge is the long necked, long legged, Greater Sandhill Crane.  This largest of the sandhill crane subspecies stands up to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of over 6 feet.  Birds of that size stand out even in the vast expanses of the Nevada landscape.  Its grey-brown body and white face are contrasted with a red forehead.  These very vocal birds have an unmistakable honk and gurgling call and engage in intricate “dance” moves for pair bonding.

Greater Sandhill Cranes migrate back to the Refuge in March after a sunny winter in Arizona. Upon arrival, pairs quickly establish nesting territories. These crane pairs defend a large area of up to 400 acres which typically includes wet meadows, grasslands, and shallow wetlands.  It is believed that sandhill cranes mate for life and both parents share in the responsibility for raising their 1-2 young, or colts, per year.  Limited suitable nesting habitat and predation of eggs and colts limits population growth for cranes.  In a typical year about 20 pairs of cranes nest on the Refuge, hatching 9 colts and fledging 1-2 per year.  In fall, the cranes begin their migration southward and may be seen in flocks, “staging”, before they leave. 

Ruby Valley is well suited to Greater Sandhill Cranes and has probably been a nesting ground since the last glacial period.  However, population declines of all crane subspecies occurred during the latter 1800s.  Declines were countered with hunting bans and sandhill crane populations have stabilized since the 1980s.  There are two separate populations of Greater Sandhill Cranes.  The Lower Colorado River Valley Population, which includes the Ruby Valley birds, is the smaller, averaging 2,442 birds between 2009 and 2011.  Nevada Department of Wildlife lists the Greater Sandhill Crane as a Species of Conservation Priority in their Wildlife Action Plan and the Bureau of Land Management lists the birds as a Sensitive Species.


 

Turn to the next page to learn more about threats to Greater Sandhill Cranes and how the Refuge can help. 

 

Threats 

Sandhill crane populations are controlled, in part, by home territory size of crane pairs within a limited area of suitable habitat.  This, coupled with a low annual colt recruitment rate, explains why the Refuge has had a stable number of breeding pairs over the last several decades. 

Grazing and prescribed fire are used to invigorate decadent vegetation in meadows, creating better foraging conditions and increased productivity.  However, these tools must be used in a manner that creates a mosaic across the landscape that includes tall, dense vegetation for nest concealment and cover for colts which are unable to fly.  Additionally, dense vegetation may support abundant small mammal populations which decrease predators’ need to seek crane eggs and colts as prey.

Predation of crane eggs by ravens and predation of colts and eggs by coyotes can be significant.  It is possible that these predators have reached unnaturally high population levels due to human-caused habitat changes.  Disturbance by humans during nesting also may lead to nest abandonment or increased predation of eggs or colts while the crane parents are away.

Invasive plant infestations cause several changes to native plant communities which could negatively impact sandhill cranes.  Invasive plants may be unpalatable or toxic and displace plants which are desirable to cranes as food in the form of seeds or tubers.  They can alter insect, reptile, or small mammal communities which provide quality forage for cranes.  Dense infestations of some invasive plant species could be unusable by colts, thus reducing the overall available habitat within a crane pair’s territory.

Greater Sandhill Cranes are a migratory species so the wellbeing of the Ruby Valley population is linked to the management of surrounding lands and of all the lands the birds utilize along the migration path.  The Refuge can play an important role by:

  1. Providing productive and structurally diverse wet meadow and shallow emergent marsh for nesting and rearing habitat.
  2. Preventing human disturbance of crane pairs during the nesting season.
  3. Reducing the spread and spatial area occupied by invasive plants.
  4. Coordinating with local private landowners on sandhill crane conservation needs.

Facts About Greater Sandhill Crane

Height: almost 4 feet tall 

Weight: males 12 lbs, females 11 lbs

Wingspan: over 6 feet

Habitat: mostly wetlands but also hayfields, pastures and other plant communities

Diet: a wide variety of plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and occasional small mammals

Lifespan: documented up to 19 years

Population: LCRVP estimated under 23,000 in 2009-11 average

 

Sandhill Crane
 

Page Photo Credits — Sandhill crane pair/USFWS
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2014
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