Sandhill Crane Nesting (All You Need To Know)

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a fascinating species with nesting, wintering, or stopover sites throughout North America. A lot is known about their extraordinary migrations, where the birds gather in the millions at key staging sites throughout the country. But what do you know about sandhill crane nesting?

Sandhill Cranes build their nests within wetland habitats where they also forage their food. Nest sites can vary but are generally on the water, constructed with the aquatic vegetation they are surrounded by.

It would be uncommon for a person to encounter a nest. They are typically sequestered away within wetland interiors where disturbance is unlikely. Since you may not be able to observe these cranes' nesting habits in the wild, we have created this complete guide. In it, we will dive more in-depth into the most commonly asked questions regarding sandhill crane nesting habits.

The nest of a sandhill crane with chick

The nest of a sandhill crane with chick

Where do sandhill cranes nest?

Sandhill cranes nest in seasonally flooded emergent wetlands, such as bogs, marshes, or swales. The water level is important in nest-site selection. Sandhill cranes often build their nests over open water, with depths reaching 40 inches. Nests may be attached to land or floating.

Aquatic vegetation is a key player in nest-site selection also. Cattails, sedges, bulrushes, grasses, and burr reeds are among the dominant vegetation found within nesting locations. To avoid disturbance, sandhill cranes often build their nests far from wetland edges, up to nearly 1000 feet into the interior.

Though floating nests are most common, these cranes will occasionally choose a site on dry ground. These sites are still surrounded by aquatic vegetation and near a water source.

Female Sandhill Crane sat on her nest

Female Sandhill Crane sat on her nest

What do sandhill crane nests look like?

Sandhill crane nests are built from floating aquatic vegetation, including cattails, bulrushes, and sedges. Sticks, grass, and moss are included in the construction also. The cranes use these items to form a mound over open water. Larger plant materials form the base, while the interior is lined with more malleable stems and twigs to form a cup shape. Nests built on dry ground are not as well-constructed. They are generally a simple platform of sticks and vegetation.

Construction may last anywhere from one day to two weeks, with both males and females participating in the building process. Cranes may continue adding to the nest throughout incubation, adjusting to changes in water level.

Floating nests typically stand 10 to 16 cm above the surface of the water. On average, nests reach 98 cm x 113 cm. However, length and width vary substantially based on location.

Sandhill Crane nests are fairly simple

Sandhill Crane nests are fairly simple

What time of year do sandhill cranes nest?

The time of year sandhill cranes nest differs between migratory and non-migratory populations. Permanent residents may begin laying eggs as early as December or as late as August, but most eggs are laid between January and May. On the other hand, migratory crane populations tend to nest between early April and August.

How long do sandhill cranes nest for?

Sandhill cranes have a long nesting season. For non-migratory species, the season may last as long as nine months, while migratory cranes nest for nearly five months. According to research in Florida, 19.5 days is the average amount of time to pass between the first clutch fledging and the second hatching. This period may decrease significantly if the first clutch is lost.

Sandhill Crane sat on the nest

Sandhill Crane sat on the nest

How do sandhill cranes build their nests?

Early in the nesting season, sandhill cranes build their nest with dried plant material from the previous year's sedges, cattails, reeds, bulrushes, and grasses. Cranes will add to or renest with green plant matter as the season progresses. Both the male and the female contribute to the building process. The female constructs the nest by standing in the center and building up around her, forming a cup shape.

A pair of sandhill cranes building their nest together

A pair of sandhill cranes building their nest together

When do baby sandhill cranes leave the nest?

Baby sandhill cranes leave the nest within one day after hatching. They follow their parents through the wetlands as they forage, with both parents feeding their young directly for the first ten days. Then the colts gradually learn to feed themselves. The fledgling sandhills take their first flights between 65 and 75 days after hatching.

How many broods do sandhill cranes have?

Sandhill cranes generally have one brood per year, laying one to three eggs. However, they may nest up to three times. Renesting most often occurs after one clutch is unsuccessful.

Two sandhill crane chicks

Two sandhill crane chicks

Do sandhill cranes nest in the same place every year?

Sandhill cranes return to the same area to nest year after year. The previous year's nest is not reusable, but the birds will build new nests at or near the same site.

What do sandhill crane eggs look like?

Sandhill crane eggs typically have an olive to brownish coloration, with dark, reddish-brown, or gray markings. Occasionally, eggs are solid white. They are elongated oval in shape, with an average size of 93.1 x 59.1 mm.

Two sandhill crane eggs in the nest

Two sandhill crane eggs in the nest

What month do sandhill cranes lay eggs?

Sandhill cranes have a broad range of months in which they might lay eggs. Non-migratory populations have the longest laying potential - between December and August. The average laying dates for permanent Florida residents are late February or early March. Sandhill cranes that take part in yearly migrations typically lay their eggs in early April or May but can nest as late as August.

Do sandhill cranes use nest boxes?

Sandhill cranes do not use nest boxes. They nest almost exclusively in wetland habitats and prefer to build floating nests over water. When nest sites are not in the water, they are built on dry ground surrounded by aquatic vegetation, such as cattails, sedges, and reeds.

Sandhill Crane sat on the nest at sunset

Sandhill Crane sat on the nest at sunset

Where do sandhill cranes nest at night?

Sandhill cranes typically sleep at night, preferring to stand on one leg in shallow water with their heads tucked beneath their shoulders. While nesting, adult cranes sleep in the same position, but both parents stay near the nest to protect their young.

Do sandhill cranes nest in backyards?

It is unlikely for sandhill cranes to nest in backyards. These birds prefer dense, extensive wetlands and marshes with bountiful aquatic vegetation. To lessen disturbance and attacks by predators, they often nest at least 300 yards from wetland edges. This solitude would not be attainable in most backyards.

Expert Q + A

Question

Do sandhill crane chicks return to their birthplace once they’re adults?

BirdFact Team

Sandhill Crane chicks usually stay with their parents for under a year. After this time, they often separate from their families either during the spring migration, or when they find a mate, where they will then go off and establish their own breeding territory.

Although this is generally the common behavior, there are plenty of examples of family units joining back up, particularly when on wintering and breeding grounds. However, this re-joining is usually only temperamental.

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