Sandhill crane (greater) (Grus canadensis tabida)

Large sandhill crane with white and tan plumage with long black legs and bright red head feathers walking through a marsh
Adult sandhill crane with rust-stained feathers from preening with a muddy beak. (Jim Cummins)
Category: Birds
State status: Endangered
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

The Washington population of greater sandhill cranes is critical but the trend is increasing; they number about 100 adult and subadult birds, with about 40 breeding pairs. Three subspecies of sandhill crane occur in Washington—greater, lesser and Canadian. WDFW has listed all as state endangered.

Description and Range

Physical description

Adult sandhill cranes are primarily gray in color and have a reddish cap. Subadults have a pale rust-colored head and neck; their body is gray, overlaid with a mottled rust-color. Adults are about 3½ feet in length, and their wingspan is a little over 6 feet across.

Ecology and life history

Sandhill cranes are long-lived, but have a low reproductive rate, and their nests are vulnerable to predators, disturbance, and fluctuating water levels.

A migratory flock of about 2 dozen sandhill cranes foraging in a farm field in Washington.
A migratory flock of sandhill cranes forage in an agricultural field.

Breeding territories contain wetlands, grassy uplands, partially forested uplands, and wet meadows, and are sometimes surrounded by forest. Sandhill cranes nest in wet meadows and grasslands. Emergent vegetation is a key component of their preferred nesting areas. Nests, which are built in emergent vegetation in shallow water or close to water, are a mound of plant material pulled up from around the site and anchored to surrounding vegetation.

During migration and in winter they live in more open grassland and river valleys, and often feed in agricultural fields. Sandhill cranes typically use habitats where they have clear views of their surroundings.  

Sandhill cranes eat insects, rodents, snails, small reptiles, amphibians, nestling birds, the roots of aquatic plants, tubers, berries, seeds, and grains. During migration they often feed on waste grains, particularly rice and corn, but also milo, wheat, oats, and barley. The Columbia Basin and lower Columbia River bottomlands are very important staging areas for cranes for 'refueling' during migration. 

The courtship of cranes includes elaborate rituals, and birds often mate for life. Pairs return to the same nesting territories year after year and sometimes use the same nest repeatedly. The young learn migratory routes from adults, and Washington birds migrate to the Central Valley of California.

Geographic range

The greater sandhill crane formerly nested at numerous sites throughout eastern Washington, and it was extirpated for about 30 years.

Between 1975 and 1987, a single pair of sandhill cranes nested at Conboy Lake NWR in Klickitat County. Since 1988, 2 to 6 pairs/year are known to have nested on the refuge, and in 1996 there were 9 confirmed breeding pairs. Nesting cranes were discovered at a second site in Washington on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Yakima County, where 1 pair nested in 1994 and 1995, and 2 pairs nested in 1996. 

Greater sandhill cranes currently breed at about six locations in Klickitat and Yakima Counties. The breeding population in Washington numbers only about 40 pairs but has been slowly increasing.

Breeding sandhill cranes arrive at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge in early March. Most nesting occurs from April to June, though a newly hatched "colt" (a crane chick) has been observed as late as early July. Breeding cranes and their surviving young leave the state between late September and mid-October. These cranes are part of the Central Valley Population that winter in California's Central Valley. 

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate

Sandhill cranes require wetlands for nesting and some feeding, and prefer open water with little emergent vegetation for roosting. They are sensitive to drought, low flows, or flooding that decrease available nesting, foraging, or roosting habitat. Sandhill cranes appear to have low physiological sensitivity to changes in climate, but little information currently exists on this topic.

Confidence: Low

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Drought
  • Altered hydrology>
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Inadequate information to manage small population.  
    • Action Needed: Aerial surveys of nesting territories; information about new territories.
    • Threat: Assess survival, recruitment.  
    • Action Needed: Analysis of banding data to assess recruitment/survival.
  • Agriculture and aquaculture side effects
    • Threat: Nests are vulnerable to water-level changes.
    • Action Needed: Enhance effectiveness of water management.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.

Resources

References

Littlefield, C. D., and G. L. Ivey. 2002. Washington State Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Crane. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.

Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida). Birds of North America 31: 1-24..

WDFW publications

PHS Program

 

Status reports

Recovery plans

Other resources