This large crane is from 3 to 5 feet tall and 8 to 10 pounds, with a 5 to 7 foot wingspan. The body is gray with rusty brown patches, a red forehead and white cheeks and bright orange eyes. These birds winter in central and southern New Mexico, in parts of California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and down into Mexico. The population in Florida does not migrate but others migrate up to their breeding ranges in northern Canada and Alaska. The great blue heron is about the same size as the sandhill crane but has a thinner body than the heavily built crane. In flight the two birds can be easily distinguished by their profiles. Cranes always stretch or “crane” their necks out straight in flight, whereas blue herons (and all other herons) fold their necks back in a loop, bringing the head very near the body in profile.
Sandhill cranes are found in marshy grasslands, agricultural fields, open prairies, and river valleys. They are omnivores, feeding on a variety of prey, including amphibians, reptiles and small mammals, as well as snails and insects. They also forage on seeds and grains, fruit berries and aquatic plant roots.
Courtship behavior is conspicuous, involving a dance in which mates hop around with wings spread while calling. The nest is constructed either as a floating platform in marshy vegetation or on the ground near water. Normally two chicks are produced which are precocial, covered with down feathers, eyes open, and able to leave the nest the day after hatching. The chicks, or colts, follow the parents who feed them until the young birds are ready to get their own food. Parents and young stay together as a family group during the fall migration.
The early weeks after hatching are a period of great vulnerability for the large, flightless chicks, when many mammal predators and raptors, ravens, and gulls may take the young birds. Adults will aggressively defend their young, hissing and charging and kicking at a predator and even stabbing with the heavy, pointed beak. Hunting has severely impacted sandhill crane populations in the past, with the species being reduced to around 1,000 birds by 1940. Conservation efforts have resulted in a resurgence and the species now numbers over 500,000 individuals.
Sandhill cranes are gregarious and tend to forage and roost in flocks. One of the largest aggregations is found in the wintering grounds at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Socorro, where some 10,000 birds may accumulate during the fall and winter.
These cranes have an ancient history in North America, with the earliest substantiated sandhill crane fossil dating back some 2.5 million years and related ancestors going back even farther.
Photos taken by James Taulman at the Albuquerque Open Space Visitor Center, using a Nikon P900 camera.