Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane Chick

The sight and sound of Sandhill cranes is a reminder of the primitive world. One of the oldest living birds on the planet, Sandhill cranes are at the same time both ungainly and graceful. An encounter with a Sandhill crane creates an indelible image, and the early morning call is an unforgettable sound.

For centuries the Conboy Lake region has provided homes for Sandhill cranes, but what is often an ideal home for wildlife is often also desired by humans. Early settlers found the water and grasses of the Camas Prairie perfect for farming and cattle grazing. To increase hay production and pasture land, Conboy Lake was partially drained, which, along with hunting pressure, took its toll on cranes and other wildlife. No one is sure when exactly the cranes no longer were returning, but by the end of the 19th century journal entries noted a scarcity of ducks, geese, swans and other birds.

Although Conboy Lake NWR was established in 1964 to preserve and restore this key habitat, it wasn't until 1972 that a pair of Sandhill cranes returned, and nesting wasn't confirmed until 1976. Today, Conboy Lake NWR provides habitat for the majority of greater Sandhill cranes nesting in Washington, with about 26-27 breeding pairs on the refuge and 80 birds in total.

Did You Know . . . 

  • Sandhill cranes are named for the Sand Hills region of Nebraska.

  • Of the 15 species of cranes around the world, 10 are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

  • The whooping crane is the only other crane in North America. It is essentially all white, slightly larger than the Sandhill crane and is considered endangered.

  • Sandhill cranes are divided into five subspecies. Although the more numerous lesser Sandhill crane travels through Washington—and is features in Othello's annual Sandhill Crane Festival—the greater Sandhill crane is the only subspecies that nests in Washington, occupying the Glenwood Valley near Mt. Adams.

  • Sandhill cranes can fly from 15 to 50 miles per hour, depending on wind speed and direction. They circle skyward on rising columns of warm air—called thermals—to help them gain altitudes of up to 12,000 feet! Generally, however, they migrate at altitudes of less than 5,000 feet.

  • When migrating cranes may average 150 to over 400 miles a day, usually during daylight hours when helpful air currents are strongest.

  • All cranes are omnivorous. Sandhill cranes feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small animals and invertebrates, such as insects or worms.

  • Sandhill cranes begin breeding between two and seven years of age. They are perennially monogamous, that is they "mate for life." However, if the mate dies, the survivor will choose a new mate.

  • Cranes "dance" to attract mates. Although it is commonly associated with courtship, dancing can occur at any age and season. Dancing is generally believed to be a normal part of motor development for cranes and thwarts aggression, relieves tension and strengthens the pair bond.

  • Mated pairs of cranes engage in unison calling, which is a complex and extended series of coordinated calls. While calling, cranes stand in an upright posture, usually with their heads thrown back and beaks skyward during the display.

  • A typical crane nest is a low mound of vegetation, usually located in a wetland. Females usually lay two eggs, and incubation lasts 29-32 days. Both parents incubate and feed the chicks throughout the pre-fledging stage, which is typically 67-75 days.

  • Juvenile cranes are called colts.

  • Although most predators avoid adult Sandhill cranes, when threatened a crane vaults into the air toward the potential predator, throwing its feet forward in a front kick.

  • The single, most important factor regulating crane populations is habitat availability. Nesting effort and success, as well as survival of young, correlate directly with the amount and quality of nesting habitat.

  • Sandhill cranes are primarily birds of open, freshwater wetlands, but the different subspecies utilize habitats that range from bogs, sedge meadows and fens to open grasslands, pine savannas and cultivated lands.

  • Sandhill cranes weigh only about seven pounds, but have six-foot wingspans.

  • Unlike similar-looking, but unrelated, herons, cranes fly with necks outstretched, not pulled back.

  • Sandhill cranes live up to 20 years or more.

  • Plumage is characterized by varying shades of gray, and the forehead and crown are covered with reddish skin. Adults have a white cheek patch. In general, males and females are virtually indistinguishable, but within a breeding pair, males tend to be larger than females. Juvenile plumage changes from cinnamon brown to gray as the bird matures during the first year. In many areas, Sandhill cranes preen iron-rich mud into their feathers, creating a deep rusty brown hue which lasts during spring and summer.