Every year the Delta and Central Valley of northern California come alive when thousands of sandhill cranes settle here for the winter. My recent post highlighted the migrating ducks; here is a post, with pleasure, on the cranes.
Originally named for their migration through the sand hills and dunes of Nebraska, they fly here from the northern part of the continent every winter. See map and links below.
The sandhill cranes are mesmerizing to observe with their distinctive bugling calls, animated mating dances, graceful foraging, and stately appearance. A social bird, they travel in large flocks as a form of protection.
Approximately four feet tall (1.21 m) with a wingspan of over seven feet (2.13 m), the long-legged Grus canadensis is an omnivore. They eat insects, roots of aquatic plants, rodents, amphibians, snails, reptiles, berries, and cultivated grains.
With one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird, sandhill cranes date back 2.5 million years. Over-hunted in the Gold Rush days, and listed as threatened in 1983, the population has made a recent comeback.
Winter in northern California is typically cool in the 40s F. (4 C ) with frequent rain storms. The cranes forage in shallow wetlands, a habitat that is diminishing across America. In addition, some states allow hunting of sandhill cranes, though not in California. So here they have a haven where it is safe to traverse the wet fields and open skies in search of meals.
The Nature Conservancy has worked cooperatively with farmers for many years toward attracting the cranes for winter “stopovers.”
This worldwide non-profit organization pays California rice farmers to keep their fields flooded and to leave rice straw acreage in place, providing suitable crane roosting and foraging habitat. While it is not a huge moneymaker, the farmers respect the land as crane habitat.
In the spring the cranes will return to their breeding grounds in the northern parts of North America and northeastern Siberia, usually producing two eggs per season. With a lifespan of 20-30 years, cranes mate for life.
I have spent over two decades traipsing around these back roads, watching for this bird that I am so happy to greet every winter. I have watched many people (birders and not) at refuges and along the country roads–they are enthralled with the cranes, stop and watch the spectacle of these flocks.
How can you not be transformed by thousands of cranes congregating in a field?
The sound of a large flock of sandhill cranes by Bobby Wilcox
Photo credit: Athena Alexander
Where to look for sandhill cranes in northern California: