Sandhill Cranes

Grus pratensis
Flying Sand hill cranes header

Sandhill Cranes can be seen on the Refuge from April to September. These stately birds stand at a height of three feet, have a bald red crown, and range in color from light grey to a rusty brown. The rusty coloration is acquired from iron in the soil which gets on their bills and stains their feathers when they preen. Cranes can generally be observed throughout the Refuge along creeks, near wetlands, and in open grassy areas. Around 400 Sandhill Cranes regularly summer in the Centennial Valley. Hunting of sandhills is not allowed on the Refuge, although there is a special permit hunt in Beaverhead County. 

There are six subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. Greater Sandhill Cranes, which nest on the Refuge, can be distinguished from the other subspecies only by geographic distribution. There is considerable overlap in coloration and size between the subspecies. 

Natural History 

Sandhill Cranes pair for life. Courtship occurs in April and May. The cranes are famous for their elaborate courtship dances which consist of bows, jumps, and pirouettes. There can be from two to a hundred dancers involved in this ritual. Although the dance is considered mainly a courtship ritual, it is sometimes seen at other times of the year. Sandhills have a loud trumpeting call which can be heard for over a mile. Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous. They eat small rodents, grain, frogs, snakes, insects, worms, and birds. Young cranes eat mostly insects. 


Sandhill Cranes typically nest near water. The nest is usually a mound of dead reeds, grasses, or sedges. Nests can be found along streams, on islands, in marshes, and along the shorelines of ponds and lakes. The clutch usually consists of two eggs. They hatch after about 30 days of incubation. The young cranes, called colts, are active about 24 hours after hatching. Juveniles can be distinguished from adults because they lack the bald red crown. Instead their heads and necks are covered with brownish feathers. Sandhill cranes are very sensitive to disturbance when nesting and may abandon their eggs if they are approached too closely. 


Normally, Sandhill Cranes begin returning from their wintering areas in southwest U.S. and northern Mexico in early April. They remain on the breeding grounds throughout the summer. Fall migration begins in late August. By the end of September, most all of the cranes have departed for southern climes. Cranes which breed in the Red Rock Lakes area often winter at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.

Facts About Sandhill Cranes

Nesting Season: April 15 - June 15 

Clutch Size: Usually 2 

Incubation Period: 28-31-days 

Peak of Hatch: Early June Colt 

Fledging Age: 65-75 days 

Breeding Age: 2-3 years 

Adult Height: 3 feet 

Wing Span: 6-7 feet 

Weight: 6-12 lbs. 

Life Span: 11-14 years