The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is among the oldest living species of birds, dating back 2.5 million years. Today, it is an endangered species in Ohio.
Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the sandhill crane is its tendency to dance. Although an integral part of their courtship, they can be seen dancing any time of the year. The dance of the sandhill crane includes many quick steps around each other, wings half spread with an occasional leap into the air up to eight feet off the ground. Part of this ceremony includes bowing toward one another. Outside of its occurrence during courtship in the spring, researchers are unclear as to why this behavior continues throughout the year.
Sandhill cranes are wading birds characterized by long legs, necks, and bills. The sandhill crane ranges between 34 and 38 inches in height and has a six-to seven-foot wingspan. Weight varies from 7.7 to 14.4 pounds according to the sex of the individual bird and the race to which it belongs. Outward appearance of the sexes is alike except in size. The male is slightly larger than the female. The plumage of the adult sandhill crane is gray with a bald red skin patch on its forehead. Their eyes are yellow and their bill, legs, and feet are blackish. Immature sandhill cranes have a gray body with a brownish head and they lack the red skin patch.
After hatching, the older chick is more aggressive than the younger, and the two must be separated by the parents. The parents will split up and walk in separate directions so that one chick will follow one parent and the other chick the other parent. The precocial young leave the nest in less than 24 hours.
Sandhill cranes are monogamous breeders, meaning a male and female partner together to rear the young. Peak breeding activity occurs in April and May, and two eggs are incubated for 28-30 days. The young are hatched in June, and are born precocial. The juveniles fly 90 days after hatching. After fledging, the young remain with their parents throughout the year. The parents will abandon their young cranes just prior to the next nesting season.
Habitat & Behavior
Sandhill cranes are primarily a wetland-dependent species. On their wintering grounds, they will utilize agricultural fields; however, they roost in shallow, standing water or moist bottomlands. On breeding grounds they require a rather large tract of wet meadow, shallow marsh, or bog for nesting.
In flight, the sandhill crane migrates at high elevations in large flocks, often composed of thousands of birds. The flight formation is usually a "V," but sometimes it's a straight line. The birds spend little time gliding and are noted for a quick upward wingbeat and a longer downward wingbeat. Sandhill cranes fly with their necks fully extended and can be distinguished from herons which fly with their necks bent in something of an "S" shape.
These cranes are seasonal residents, and it is unknown how far young go to establish their own territories. They feed during daylight hours on grain, insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
Research & Surveys
Best Viewing Opportunities
- Funk Bottoms and Killbuck Wildlife Areas, Wayne County
- Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Lucas/Ottawa Counties
- Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area, Trumbull County
- Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County
The state threatened sandhill crane occurs in marshes, swamps, and grassland or crop fields adjacent to these wetlands. Sandhill cranes returned to breed in Ohio in 1987 in Wayne County and their breeding population has continued to slowly expand throughout the state. The viewing areas listed below provide important breeding habitat. Migrating cranes can often be seen in these areas during spring and fall. In 2020, the number of probable breeding pairs observed in Ohio was at least 58, with 25 confirmed, and the number of young was at least 28. These numbers are the minimum number of breeding cranes in Ohio based on observations from the public (Ebird and the Wildlife Reporting Website) and staff. During aerial fall waterfowl surveys (Oct-Dec) in recent years, flocks of up to 150 cranes have been observed in the vicinity of Funk Bottoms/Killbuck Wildlife Areas (Ashland/Wayne/Holmes Counties). Please help track Ohio’s breeding cranes by reporting sightings of breeding pairs and young to Ebird (www.ebird.org) or the Wildlife Reporting website.