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Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane

Grus Canadensis
Sandhill crane mother and chick / Lauri Griffin ©
The Rocky Mountain population of greater sandhill cranes is the most abundant subspecies that winters in the Bosque del Apache. They are the largest of all the sandhills, standing four feet tall with a wing span greater than six feet. The immature cranes are mostly rust colored their first year, after which they turn mostly gray with a red facial patch.

Cranes are monogamous but will take a new mate if a previous mate dies. They can reproduce as early as two years and can live upwards of 25 years. Displays of dancing are an important part of the courtship process. Dancing is more common among young birds as they select mates, although older birds may get caught up in the fun.

Dancing consists of bowing, jumping, head swinging, and wing spreading. They may call out, flap their wings, and even throw small items into the air. Whole groups may take up the dance and the show may end as quickly as it began, after which the cranes go back to feeding as if nothing had happened.

The nesting range for the Rocky Mountain population of cranes includes western Montana, the Greater Yellowstone Basin, Utah, and northwestern Colorado. The largest population of nesting Rocky Mountain sandhills is at Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Idaho. Cranes return to the same nesting ground each year when they disappear in pairs to their secretive nesting areas.

Nests are usually on dry mounds located in shallow water, which lends protection from predators. Cranes lay two eggs and both parents help incubate the eggs with the female incubating about 70 percent of the time. Hatching occurs after 28 to 36 days. Hatchlings, or colts, can walk immediately after hatching and begin to forage with their parents. Within days of hatching the cranes abandon the nest. The young will stay with their parents until next spring learning about feeding strategies, survival tactics and migration.

As fall approaches, cranes gather in large groups at staging areas to rest, feed, and socialize for several weeks before beginning their journey south. Within those groups the small family units stay intact so the adults may continue to protect and guide the juveniles. Along their southerly route, the cranes will spend several weeks in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado preparing for the last leg of their journey.

The cranes move southward to places where the wetlands are not frozen and where they can feed and rest in relative safety. Today they spend the winter primarily in central and southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona but historically they spread as far south as Chihuahua and Zacatecas, Mexico. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the middle Rio Grande Valley annually host approximately 30,000 sandhill cranes.

Throughout the winter sandhill cranes consume corn, insects, amphibians and rodents. This helps them maintain fat reserves for survival and eventually store essential nutrients and fat in preparation for spring migration and the breeding season. In February, warming temperatures and longer days prompt the cranes to begin their northern migration.

Warm air creates thermals that lift the birds into spiraling columns achieving elevations from 3,000 to more than 12,000 feet. Flying in V formation helps them travel as far as 500 miles in nine to 10 hours. Their calls can be heard from one to two miles away and cranes are more often heard than seen as they head north at high altitude.

In late March and early April, the Rocky Mountain population of greater sandhill cranes arrive back on their breeding grounds to mate and begin the cycle again as they have done for millions of years.

 

Facts About Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane

Size: About 4’ tall with a wingspan that can measure greater than 6’.   
Color: Adults are mostly gray and with a crimson crown on their head; young birds are rust-colored.  

Lifespan
: Up to 25 years (though some have been recorded to live much longer).  

Crane or Heron
? Cranes fly with their necks straight while herons fly with their necks curved. 
Page Photo Credits — Sandhill crane mother and chick / Lauri Griffin ©
Last Updated: Sep 30, 2013
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