Celebrating Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane








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.


Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

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.


Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

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.


Wikipedia overview.


Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field



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.


Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left


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.


Sandhill cranes, California

Sandhill cranes, California

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

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.




Where to look for sandhill cranes in northern California:

Consumnes River Preserve

Isenberg Sandhill Crane Preserve


Sandhill Crane Range Map

Sandhill Crane Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org



63 thoughts on “Celebrating Sandhill Cranes

    • I always think of you, Alastair, when I hunt down the sound bytes, for your craft is intriguing. I’m glad you enjoyed that thrilling sandhill crane clip. Even though the recorded cranes weren’t in California, they sound just like ours here. My thanks and best wishes to you~~

  1. magnificent birds for sure. I was just thinking of them this morning because a year ago we were in Clearwater Fl where we saw them. Thanks for sharing

    • I think it’s wonderful, too, Belinda — opening up our human existence to live with and revere other beautiful creatures. So glad you enjoyed the crane post this morning — I appreciate your visits and comments.

  2. Jet looking a the map I clearly need to learn more about the birds where we live. It seems we should be able to see lots of these wide winged birds in the summer. To think that their wing spans are 7 feet is astounding. Listening to the audio it made me instantly think of Jurassic Park and the sounds in that movie. Obviously the film makers did their research and found animals who would have existed millions of years ago. Fascinating post and wonderful photos as always from Athena.

    • And you growing up in the plains, Sue, I am thinking they are probably around you in several different spots of Canada in the warm months. Googling the local Audubon or birding organizations will reveal where the birders go to see the sandhill cranes. Alternatively, when you’re visiting your brother sometime, I’ll show you & Dave if it’s winter. I’m glad you had a chance to hear the audio, it’s a very unique sound to the cranes and I would not be at all surprised if it is on the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Very glad you enjoyed the post, I sure enjoyed yours too. Many thanks for today’s exchange — and have a wonderful weekend.

  3. I never realized these cranes lived for 20 or 30 years; hopefully their longevity will keep them from diminishing due to their habitat changes. A spectacular sight it must be to see a flock of large birds flying high in the sky. Thanks for sharing, Jet.

    • I’m happy you liked the sandhill cranes, Andy. That last photo is a beauty, isn’t it? We were standing by a pond and they had just lifted off, and fortunately we were standing atop a levee so we were a little more elevated — it offers the good light and detail of the flock. Always a treat to have you stop by~~

  4. I fell in love with these birds when I first encountered huge flocks of these cranes alongside of the snow geese at the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex. It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. Then on another trip we stopped at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (the one invaded by the Bundy boys about a year after our visit). The lake there was pretty much dried up and we didn’t see much bird life, but driving along Lake Abert (Oregon), we came across a small flock in a farmer’s field and I had the joy or watching their bizarre and spectacular mating dance. What a thrill that was.

    I find it hard to swallow that some places actually allow hunting these magical creatures. Thank goodness for the Preserves and Refuges. May they always prosper.

    • “Fell in love” says it all, Gunta. That’s exactly how I feel every time I see them. They are absolutely glorious! I’ve been to the Klamath Basin (saw 50 eagles on a frigid dawn taking off from their roosts), but not the Malheur, though I’ve certainly read a lot about it now in the paper when they had the showdown. I often find a pair or two or three in the fields in Wisc. when I visit there in the summer, and it’s much like you describe in your Oregon drives. I cannot believe it either, that there are people who shoot them freely and legally, but it’s true. I warn you, though, don’t google the states who allow hunting them, it’s shocking and depressing. Just stick with your lovely memories and images, and yes, praise the preserves and refuges and pay the fees so they do indeed continue to exist. Lovely to have you visit, my friend — thank you for sharing your wonderful sandhill crane stories.

  5. We were on the flight path of “les grus” when we lived in SW France – and the audio clip brought it all back. Long, long flying Vs over our house, such a distinctive sight and sound. Another lovely post, and what a joy for you to be able to see them close up at ground level – they are spectacular.
    Thanks, Jet, and have a great weekend!

    • I really liked hearing about your experiences being on the flight path of the cranes in SW France, pc. I looked it up and that is the Common Crane that migrates over France, in large numbers, on their way to Spain for the cold months. You know how very exciting it is as they fly and fly and fly overhead day after day. I love it that the audio clip “brought it all back” for you. Thanks so much for sharing your crane migration experiences, I sure liked hearing about snowboarding with your students. 🙂

  6. These are wonderful birds – and what a great post, Jet. Beautiful captures by Athena! I have never seen these birds in the wild (only in our bird sanctuary) here in Florida. I saw a beautiful distant relative in Kenya last year, but hope to bump into a Sandhill Crane right here at home one of these days 🙂

  7. Love this post, but then again, you already know I’m a ‘craniac’. During my stay here along the Texas Gulf Coast I hear them every day and of course the sight of them is a delight. Wonderful photos!

    • That you are surrounded by the sandhill cranes is such a wonderful thing, Ingrid. I love it that you call yourself a “craniac” and take the time and prioritize your adventures to be near wildlife and wilderness all year long. Cheers to the cranes! And to you!

  8. Good looking birds, very pacific, I’ve seen them and photograph them. Good looking birds, they are easy to photograph because they are not shy or skittish. They spook if you get too close for comfort. You’re lucky to see large numbers of them! Thanks for the post my friend. 🙂

    • Yes, such a gorgeous and large, slow bird. They’re not very easy to photograph because, as you say, they’re skittish. They are often at the back ends of the fields, as far away from the road as possible. Having scouted them for over two decades helps with locating them and knowing how to capture them before they take off. Also, if possible, she stays in the car, snaps them out the moon roof, using the car as the blind. Delighted you enjoyed the cranes, HJ.

  9. Beautiful photos and thanks for sharing this information and including the link to the Nature Conservancy. How wonderful that they work to ensure these habitats and that you have a chance to watch these birds every year. I was hoping to visit an Audubon sanctuary we have in our state during the Crane migration last year, but missed out on the opportunity. After reading this post, I will not make that same mistake this year.

    • Oh how very exciting that you have crane migration in your state, ACI, and I’m delighted that this post spurred you to check it out. In general, you’ll have the best luck seeing them in large flocks when they are coming in or taking off from their roosting sites (at dawn or dusk). And cruising along the back roads you can usually find a few pairs feeding in the fields, as well. I agree that we are lucky to have the NC and farmers working harmoniously to support the cranes and their migratory behavior. Many thanks for your visit and comment.

    • I like the way you put it, Roslyn, “the flock talking to each other” — that’s exactly what it’s like to be there in person, watching their interactions, dances, tiffs, and listening to their conversations. So glad you liked the photos and the post, thank you for stopping by.

    • Flight shots can be tricky because they fly so high most of the time, and are often in their large flocks at dusk or dawn when the light is compromised. But every once in awhile she scored, and this was lovely. Thank you Donna.

    • Thank you for your visit forourtrees, wonderful that you had a moment to listen to the cranes and enjoy the post. It’s a pleasure to share the joy of the cranes with you.

  10. Magnificent! Last year we spotted a pair at an airport north of Orlando! They looked a little confused. But I love those unexpected sightings.

    • The Orlando airport is indeed a surprising place to find a pair of sandhill cranes! I love the unexpected sightings, too, Nan. My thanks for your visits and comments, as always. 🙂

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