The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is a species of large crane of North America and extreme northeastern Siberia. The common name of this bird references habitat like that at the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills on the American Plains. This is the most important stopover area for the nominotypical subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis), with up to 450,000 of these birds migrating through annually.
Florida sandhill crane, Grus canadensis pratensis; adult (behind) and juvenile
Adults are gray overall; during breeding, their plumage is usually much worn and stained, particular in the migratory populations, and looks nearly ochre. The average weight of the larger males is 4.57 kg (10.1 lb), while the average weight of females is 4.02 kg (8.9 lb), with a range of 2.7 to 6.7 kg (6.0 to 14.8 lb) across the subspecies. Sandhill cranes have red foreheads, white cheeks and long dark pointed bills. In flight, their long dark legs trail behind, and their long necks keep straight. Immature birds have reddish brown upperparts and gray underparts. The sexes look alike. Sizes vary among the different subspecies; the average height of these birds is around 80 to 122 cm (2 ft 7 in to 4 ft 0 in). Their wing chords are typically 41.8–60 cm (16.5–23.6 in), tails are 10–26.4 cm (3.9–10.4 in), the exposed culmens are 6.9–16 cm (2.7–6.3 in) long and the tarsi measure 15.5–26.6 cm (6.1–10.5 in).
These cranes frequently give a loud trumpeting call that suggests a French-style “r” rolled in the throat, and they can be heard from a long distance. Mated pairs of cranes engage in “unison calling.” The cranes stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The female makes two calls for every one from the male.
Sandhill cranes’ large wingspans, typically 1.65 to 2.29 m (5 ft 5 in to 7 ft 6 in), make them very skilled soaring birds, similar in style to hawks and eagles. Utilizing thermals to obtain lift, they can stay aloft for many hours, requiring only occasional flapping of their wings and consequently expending little energy. Migratory flocks contain hundreds of birds, and can create clear outlines of the normally invisible rising columns of air (thermals) they ride.
Sandhill cranes fly south for the winter. In their wintering areas, they form flocks of over 10,000. One place this happens is at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 100 mi (160 km) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There is an annual Sandhill Crane Festival in November.