Sandhill Crane

California supports a large wintering population of Sandhill Cranes in its Central Valley
Photo: USFWS

Famous for their courtship dance, the Sandhill Crane is one the largest migrating North American cranes. Its wingspan can reach almost seven feet wide and it can be up to four feet tall. The width of the crane's wings make it a spectacular soaring bird that can be compared to raptors. It uses thermals in the sky to fly and can stay in the air with little flapping. The Sandhill Crane is an incredibly old species, a fossil found was  2.5 million years old, which is over one and a half times older than the earliest remains of most living species of birds.

Sandhill Cranes can be found near  large freshwater marshes, prairie ponds, marshy tundra during summer and on grainfields or prairies during migration and in winter. Its range in the Pacific Flyway is from Siberia and Alaska to California's Central Valley. The mating dance of the Sandhill Crane is spectacular. Facing each other, members of a pair leap into the air with wings extended and feet thrown forward. Then they bow to each other and repeat the performance, uttering loud croaking calls. Courting birds also run about with their wings outstretched and toss tufts of grass in the air.

Greater Sandhill Cranes were once common breeders throughout the intermountain west, wintering primarily in the Central Valley of California. However their populations declined drastically as a result of unregulated hunting and habitat loss during settlement of the region. They became extinct as a breeder in Washington by 1941, when there were only an estimated 150-200 pairs remaining in Oregon. In California, the breeding population was reduced to fewer than five pairs by the 1940s. Fortunately, all populations of Greater Sandhill Cranes have increased since the 1940s, and in 2000 an estimated 465 pairs were breeding in California. Nonetheless, much of their historic range remains vacant and the population remains far below historic numbers.

California in particular is special in that it supports the Central Valley population of Greater Sandhill Cranes that winters in suitable agricultural fields and wetlands of the Central Valley and breeds in northeastern California, as well as parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, mostly on private lands. The Central Valley population of Greater Sandhill Cranes remains low, with recovery of the population hindered by the lack of directed conservation, despite the potential for habitat restoration and farmland management that could greatly benefit this population.

Audubon California’s Working Lands Program has dramatically expanded its work with farmers and ranchers across California over the last five years, providing a significant opportunity to work closely with farmers and ranchers to create and manage habitats that will protect crane populations both on their breeding and wintering grounds. Since 2008, Audubon helped secure two conservation easements in northeastern California to protect ranches with irrigated pastures that support Greater Sandhill Cranes. As part of the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, Audubon has an opportunity to take specific action targeting Sandhill Crane conservation in the Valley. Working with these partners, Audubon is increasing the amount of farmland in the Central Valley that is managed specifically for Sandhill Cranes.

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