The Sandhill Crane is an elegant bird, long of leg and neck with a crimson forehead. There have been several sightings in Edmonds over the years, most recently in September 2010 along the waterfront, October 2015 at the Edmonds marsh, and in May 2019 when five flew north over Yost Park. It is a bird to look for during migration months as a population overwinters on both sides of the Columbia River at Clark County, Wash., and Sauvie Island, Ore.
The Sandhill Crane can be found on prairies, in fields and marshes, and on tundra. The northernmost birds nest on marshy tundra in Canada, Alaska, and Eastern Siberia. In winter and in migration this species often occupies open prairies, agricultural fields, and river valleys. Other than a permanent population in Florida and an isolated one in Mississippi, the Sandhill Crane mainly winters in New Mexico, Texas, and Northern Mexico. Besides its main breeding areas in Canada and Alaska, some breed in Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Western Montana, and around the Great Lakes.
Diet is that of an omnivore and varies by season and location. The Sandhill Crane eats aquatic plant roots, insects, rodents, snails, frogs, lizards and snakes. It also eats berries, seeds, and some nestling birds. It eats large amounts of cultivated grains when and where available.
The Sandhill Crane embarks on courtship with elaborate dances that involve spreading its wings, pumping its head, bowing, and leaping in the air while calling. This is a short video of the courtship dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_O40AC9EpM. This crane mates for life and, while usually does not breed until age 7, it has been known to breed as early as age 2. Both adults build their nest among marsh vegetation in shallow water. The nest is a mound of plant material, either built up or afloat while anchored to standing plants.
There are usually two eggs, which are incubated by both adults for about a month. The young leave the nest within eight hours of hatching and are able to swim. At first, both parents feed the young birds before they gradually learn to feed themselves. The young take their first flight about about 65-75 days. They remain with their parents for the first 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration.
The oldest Sandhill Crane of record was at least 36 years and seven months of age. It was banded in Wyoming in 1973 and found in New Mexico in 2010. The earliest fossil of this species was unearthed in Florida and estimated to be 2.5 million years old. There are many collective nouns for a group of any crane species. They include construction, dance, sedge, seige and swoop.
The Sandhill Crane population is thriving. It increased by about 4.5% each year between 1966 and 2014 so it is listed as a species of low concern. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane, a subspecies, is endangered because its habitat of wet pine savanna has been largely converted to pine plantations. Enhancement or loss of habitat will determine the future of this species. It is crucial to conserve wetlands for nonmigratory populations. It is equally important to preserve wetlands in staging and wintering areas where large migratory flocks gather.
You can listen to the flight calls of a flock moving along The Potholes Reservoir in Eastern Washington here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/387935.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.