Sandhill Crane Days

Sandhill Crane Pair (Grus canadensis) Courtesy US FWS, Justine Belson, Photographer
Sandhill Crane Pair
Grus canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Justine Belson, Photographer

George Archibald, who danced daily with a captive female whooping crane named Tex, provided a remarkable example of the biological significance of dancing cranes. George even slept beside Tex, huddled in a down sleeping bag through cold Wisconsin nights, to stimulate her egg laying activity. With the help of some sperm from a donor male crane, this technique proved successful, and George eventually became the proud godfather of a baby Whooper, which he appropriately named “Gee-whiz!”

I first became enamored with cranes while attending a lecture in the U.S. Library of Congress by author-naturalist Peter Mathieson. Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world’s peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune.
Peter was a masterful story teller and soon had my students and I helplessly captivated. Our emotions vacillated from euphoric highs to abysmal lows with his elegant words describing this revered bird, the highs then snatched away as we learned of their tenuous existence. Of the 15 world species, 12 are in serious decline, primarily from habitat loss and overharvesting.

My appreciation for the magnificent avian species was accentuated last year when we had a guest presentation at our inaugural Cache Valley Sandhill crane festival in Logan. We soon realized that our guest speaker Paul Tebbel from Sacramento was more crane than human. Paul has spent much of his life both doing research as an advocate for the protection and enjoyment of this bird. From Paul we learned that the cranes elegant dance appears to go beyond mating to what can only be interpreted as a joyful expression of exuberance. Their dance continues in sporadic fashion throughout the year.

We also learned their read crown is not feathers, but skin which glows brighter with as its emotions escalate, a human trait. Another stunner came from discovering the lovely red earthen color of their feathers is actually a form of body art. The cranes will locate a reddish colored soil which they will use to preen with, transforming their natural gray plumage to an auburn glow.

On our field trip the following morning, we viewed several colts (crane youngsters) in the wet meadows and hayfields. Nesting begins early April to late May. Nests are usually low mounds of vegetation located in wetlands, but are occasionally located in uplands. The female typically lays two eggs, with incubation lasting 29 – 32 days.

Cranes are omnivorous and their diet varies depending on the season and where they are. Seeds, fleshy tubers of plants, grubs, earth worms, snails, amphibians, small reptiles and small rodents are all fair game.

Cranes typically travel 200 – 300 miles in a day during migration at speeds averaging 25 – 35 mph but can reach 500 miles with a good tail wind.
Among the oldest living birds on the planet a crane fossil found in northeast Nebraska is estimated to be about 10 million years old.

Fortunately, Sandhill Crane populations are stable to increasing. The total for the 5 subspecies numbers between 600,000 – 800,000, with Lesser Sandhill Cranes being the most abundant. Join us at our Sandhill Crane Festival in Logan June 10th & 11th to continue our celebration of these “Birds of Heaven” as described by Peter Mathieson.

This is Jack Greene reading for Wild About Utah.

Image: Courtesy U.S. of the Interior, U.S. FWS,
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society & USU Office of Sustainability

Additional Reading:

Stillwell, Cindy, Mating for Life,

A leading naturalist and writer travels the globe in search of a prized-and vanishing-bird
Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world’s peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason. Their large size and need for wilderness habitat makes them an “umbrella species” whose well being assures that of other creatures and of the ecosystem at large. Moreover, the enormous spans of their migrations are a symbol of, and stimulus to, international efforts at conservation.

In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen has woven together journeys in search of the fifteen species of cranes in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. As he tracks them (and their declining numbers) in the company of scientists, conservationists, and regional people encountered along the way, he captures the dilemmas of a planet in ecological crisis, and the deeper loss to humankind if these beautiful and imposing creatures are allowed to disappear. The book includes color plates by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

Ebersole, Rene, The Man Who Saves Cranes,, January 18, 2013,

Matthiessen, Peter(Author), Bateman,Robert, The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, North Point Press, 2001,

Sandhill Cranes, Utah’s Meadow Dancers

Sandhill Crane Pair, Grus canadensis, Courtesy US FWS, Justine Belson, Photographer
Sandhill Crane Pair
Grus canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Justine Belson, Photographer

Cranes of the Swaner Nature Preserve by Michael Flaherty, Nesting cycle of Sandhills Cranes, Swaner Nature Preserve, Park City, UT

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

The grace of sandhill cranes draws our attention when we see them in the marshes, meadows, and fields across northern Utah. As one of the tallest birds in the state, the sandhill crane is hard to miss. They’ll glide low over farm fields, with their large slate-grey bodies and red caps making them difficult to mistake with any other bird.

Northern Utah is near the lower end of the sandhill crane’s breeding range, so we’re fortunate to see them. They’ll arrive to Utah beginning in March, and stay for the summer breeding season.

Sandhill cranes develop pair bonds for life, and their choice in mates is influenced by elaborate courtship dances. Crane dances are like awkward avian ballet, with an assortment of bows, flapping wings, and leaps into the air with wings outstretched. At times, sticks or plants are grasped with their long, dagger-like bills and tossed into the air. At up to four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the sandhill crane as it dances is quite a sight to see!

Sandhill cranes are often heard before they’re seen. Their loud, rolling trumpets fill the air, even for a couple miles. Males and females call in unison, as a loud duet that helps reinforce their pair bond.

[Sandhill Crane Call Copyright 2006 Kevin Colver, as found at]

Once a suitable nest location is found on the ground or on shallow water, both the male and female toss plant material over their shoulders to build their large nest. As spring now fades to summer, sandhill cranes can be seen strolling through farm fields with their young colts, encouraging them to feed, and protecting them from predators. While the dance of the sandhill cranes has mostly ended, their elegance hangs in our memory until next year.

As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history… And so they live and have their being- these cranes- not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of… time. A crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

[End with Kevin Colver, sandhill crane call again]


Theme: Courtesy & Copyright Don Anderson Leaping Lulu
Images: YouTube video Courtesy and Copyright Michael Flaherty, Park City. UT
Audio: Copyright Kevin Colver
Text & Voice:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sandhill Crane. All About Birds.

Leopold, A. 1986. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

National Wildlife Federation. Sandhill Crane.

Tekiela, S. 2003. Birds of Utah. Adventure Publications, Inc. Cambridge, Minnesota.

Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources. Sandhill Crane.

US Geological Survey. Sandhill crane summer distribution map.

Category:Grus canadensis, Wikimedia Commons,,_two,_Bosque_del_Apache_NWR.jpg

Category:Grus canadensis, Wikimedia Commons,^_%28_Grus_canadensis_pratensis_%29_-_Flickr_-_Andrea_Westmoreland.jpg

A Sandhill Crane flying at Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, Dayton, California, USA., Courtesy USFWS, Steve Emmons, Photographer,,_Dayton,_California,_USA_-flying-8.jpg