Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes arrive in staging posts along the Platte River in during their spring migration to northern breeding grounds. With such numbers, it’s hard to imagine they might be considered endangered.
But are all sandhill crane populations and habitats under threat? We’ll be answering this questions and more below, so stay with us!
Sandhill cranes are considered a species of least concern in the wild. Despite facing threats including habitat loss and increased development encroaching onto lands on which these majestic, long-necked waders feed and breed, their population is steadily increasing.
However, isolated, nonmigratory populations of two subspecies of sandhill crane – the Mississippi sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis pulla) and the Cuban sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis nesiotes) – are listed as critically endangered, and their populations rely on captive-bred birds to ensure the survival of the species.
As a whole, Sandhill Cranes are list as a species of least concern
Sandhill cranes are also potentially affected by water shortages, climate change, and changing land use. However, the species has a strong heritage of survival and adaptation to North American landscapes.
Fossils that are almost identical to modern-day sandhill cranes dating from the Miocene epoch 10 million years ago have been unearthed, offering encouragement on the long-term future of the species.
Read on to learn more about the conservation status of sandhill cranes and where to head to stand the best chance of seeing the unforgettable mass migration spectacle.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act 1918 offers federal protection to sandhill cranes, meaning it is an offense to kill, capture or injure one without a special license. However, in 16 states across the U.S. hunting sandhill cranes is legal, during a limited hunting season, provided the necessary permit has been issued.
Florida sandhill crane populations have additional protection under the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in place since 1974, which safeguards the species from being hunted.
It is an offense to kill, capture or injure a Sandhill Crane, unless you have a special license
Sandhill cranes face a number of threats to their ongoing survival in the wild, including loss of habitat to development and loss of wetland due to increased or changes to agricultural activity on surrounding lands.
A specific habitat is needed to support sandhill cranes, which needs to be suitable for both feeding and roosting purposes. Their overnight roosts are shallow wetlands, and their daytime foraging grounds are primarily cultivated fields.
The two habitats need to be near each other so the birds can easily access both. But urban sprawl and change of land use have been extra challenges to navigate.
For example, grain fields converted to vineyards pose risks to cranes, as their wide wingspans make it difficult to take off and land when vegetation is tightly packed together.
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats that Sandhill Cranes face, due to changes to agricultural activity on surrounding lands
The 2020 estimate for the global population of sandhill cranes, according to Wetlands International, is between 670,000 and 830,000 birds, which includes around 450,000 to 550,000 birds of breeding age.
If you time it right, you can see an abundance of sandhill cranes during their annual spring migration. The spectacular sight of more than half a million of these giant waders gathering along the banks of the Platte River in Nebraska is considered one of wildlife’s most unforgettable and beautiful natural displays.
From February to early April, sandhill cranes pass through the Great Plains region of the central United States on their way to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and the northernmost stretches of the Great Lakes regions.
En-masse, they stop off at a key staging point, with hundreds of thousands of birds congregating on a 128-km (80-mi) stretch of the Platte River. Kearney, Nebraska, is sometimes referred to as the “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World”, so head there in the spring to be almost guaranteed a sighting to remember!
At other times of the year, and depending on geographical location, spotting a sandhill crane is considerably rarer. In certain parts of the country, there are no cranes – migrating or resident.
Fall migration is also rather less impressive than the spring equivalent, with the stopover of birds not lasting as long, and therefore not drawing such large numbers of birds at the same time for such an impressive effect.
For more information on where Sandhill Cranes live, check out this guide.
Sandhill Cranes roosting in the Platte River at sunset during their spring migration
In terms of temporary counts of sandhill crane numbers, Nebraska wins hands-down, with generous estimates of up to 700,000 birds spending time in the state in transit during spring and fall migrations.
In terms of resident birds, Florida has a year-round population of up to 5,000 sandhill cranes, which are joined each winter by up to 25,000 migrants.
States with sizeable breeding populations of cranes include Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Popular winter destinations for visiting cranes include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas.
Adult Sandhill Crane with juvenile in the forest
Sandhill cranes are widespread throughout Canada and the United States, with populations extending south into Mexico and northeast into the extreme edges of northeastern Siberia, in Russia.
The majority of sandhill cranes breed in Canada, where an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 breeding birds spend spring and summer months raising their young.
If you consider migrating bird numbers, then the United States could stake a valid claim to being the country with the most sandhill cranes, with at least half a million birds stopping off at staging points along Nebraska’s Platte River each spring and fall.
Some estimates put this number higher still, at upwards of 700,000 birds, present in the state for at least a matter of days or weeks.
Three Sandhill Cranes in flight
Sixteen states across the United States permit hunting of sandhill cranes, as a method of population control and preservation of agricultural crops. Managed hunting seasons, with permits required by law, are in place in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
It is forbidden to hunt either of the two subspecies of sandhill cranes that are considered endangered, the Mississippi and Cuban populations.
The Florida subpopulation is listed as a threatened species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and is protected from being hunted, killed or captured by law.
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