Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis


Aldo Leopold said of cranes, “when we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” He also said, “a crane sounds like a frog with a sore throat” — can you hear any cranes calling nearby?


Known and loved by many, sandhill cranes are some of the area’s largest and loudest birds. While they weigh on average just 8 pounds, these giant birds can have wingspans of up to 7 feet. While males and females are hard to tell apart, you can easily identify this bird by both its size and the iconic red patch on its head. Look for cranes in pairs, as they stick with their mates for life!


Like many other birds, sandhills migrate south for the winter, to places like the Platte River in Nebraska, and return north in the spring, to places like the Wisconsin River and nearby wetlands. For millenia, “their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock.” (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). With warming global climates, however, these migration patterns may change to include stopover locations that do not provide the correct living conditions for the birds. Additionally, sandhill cranes’ wetland nesting habitats are being destroyed from urban development and other climatic factors.

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An adult sandhill feeding with its colt near ALNC’s pond

Life for sandhill cranes isn’t all bad though! These enormous and ancient birds were near extinction, but are now currently protected by the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This legislation has allowed them to repopulate breeding grounds and restored wetlands throughout Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest. As their numbers grow, farmers and others are even finding the cranes to be pests as they feed on seedcorn or take over cropland, and some are considering opening hunting of sandhill cranes. With unknown shifts in their range and habitats, do you think these birds should continue to be protected?

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Sandhill crane tracks in spring snow at ALNC

Aldo Leopold love cranes! He wrote, “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words” (A Sand County Almanac).

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