Newsroom Midwest Region

Spotting sandhill cranes at Sherburne

November 14, 2017

Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest birds on the planet. Fossil records from Nebraska show that these cranes have been around for more than nine million years! Did you know that one of the best places to see them in the country is in Minnesota? From dawn until dusk, you can watch and listen these graceful birds at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman, Minnesota.

What to look for during your visit

Sandhill cranes in a shallow wetland. Photo by Mary Carlson/USFWS.
Sandhill cranes in a shallow wetland. Photo by Mary Carlson/USFWS.

Measuring nearly five feet tall, these long-legged, long-necked birds are easy to see on the landscape. Around this time of year, cranes have molted most of their rusty feathers and are grayish in appearance. Their dramatic red crowns help them stand out, but those aren’t red feathers - it’s reddish skin!

Crane numbers at Sherburne typically peak between late October and mid-November. So far this year, Sherburne has counted more than 11,000 cranes and you can see some amazing views right now! During the day, cranes will be found foraging in harvested fields and wet meadows. When watching cranes, pull off the road, but stay in your car to avoid disturbing the birds - they will flyaway!

Why are they here? Food!

Sandhill cranes grazing in a field. Photo courtesy of Mark Moschell/Creative Commons.
Sandhill cranes grazing in a field. Photo courtesy of Mark Moschell/Creative Commons.

As sandhill cranes migrate south, they need places to rest and feed. Sherburne is the perfect place for both! Now that the harvest is finished on neighboring farmlands, the leftover corn, called waste corn is useful for cranes, providing fuel for the long journey south. Once the spring comes, their diet switches to mostly eating small mammals, insects, snails, reptiles and amphibians. This provides a high calcium and protein rich diet for healthy eggs and chicks.

We’re not totally sure where these cranes are headed because Minnesota is almost right in the middle of two crane populations - the midcontinent population that migrates down into Texas, Mexico and Louisiana and the eastern population that migrates along the coast of Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

Naturally, we want to know more about where they’re headed! Currently, we’re working with research partners to use radio telemetry to determine the dividing line. The eastern population of sandhill cranes is healthy, with an estimate of 100,000 birds. The midcontinent population exceeds 400,000!

Plan your visit

Sandhill crane in flight. Photo by Jim Sinclair/USFWS.
Sandhill crane in flight. Photo by Jim Sinclair/USFWS.

If you get the chance, head to Sherburne and experience the cranes. Roll down your windows to hear their loud, rattling calls. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out the hiking trails and wildlife drive. Bring your binoculars and you may spot bald eagles, red-headed woodpeckers and more! While traveling along the area roads, please remember to be safe and respect private property by staying out of fields.