Sandhill cranes winter nearby |

Sandhill cranes winter nearby

Have you seen these large, majestic gray birds? As they fly, they have long, outstretched necks, and during migration are usually seen in V-formation. They also often talk to each other with magical bugling calls that can carry for a mile, and thus are sometimes heard, but not seen.

Sandhill cranes are the oldest living birds and go back more than 9 million years. That’s longer than people have been around. Worldwide there are 15 species of cranes, of which only two inhabit North America: sandhills and whooping cranes.

The numbers of both species of birds have declined precipitously due to human presence and destruction of their habitat, and whooping cranes are on the endangered species list. Here in central California, we are able to see some of these magnificent sandhills because they spend part of their winter in our general area.

Sandhill cranes stand nearly 4 feet tall, with a wingspan of over 6 feet. Adults are mainly gray but during the summer are partly rust colored. They have white cheeks, and their heads are red-crowned, which is actually skin, not feathers.

One population of the migratory subspecies winters in California’s central valley. If you’re willing to drive about an hour west of Grass Valley, you can find these cranes in many of the fields near Marysville. Or exit I 5 on Twin Cities Road for the Cosumnes River Preserve. Further south, near Lodi, you can find the Isenberg Sandhill Crane preserves about two and a half miles west of Interstate 5 on Woodbridge Road.

A truly breathtaking scene is the fly-in at dusk, with thousands of ducks, geese, tundra swans and sandhill cranes arriving amidst a cacophony of haunting calls. Some birds fly in seemingly out of nowhere to join their brethren on the ground, so as to be able to spend the night in a relatively safe place.

Sandhill cranes are the most numerous species of cranes in the world and can have annual migration routes stretching 14,000 miles through four countries (Mexico to eastern Siberia).

In spring, the world’s largest gathering of sandhill cranes occurs in Nebraska, along the Platte River, a shrinking area of threatened habitat in the central flyway of North America.

During March and early April, about 80 percent of the world’s sandhill cranes rest and feed there before heading north to breed. The river area also offers protection for the birds because the water is shallow and dotted with sandbars. Cranes are omnivorous and will take advantage of what is out there for food.

Although there are isolated pairs of birds that do not go north to breed, the majority head for the upper Midwest, Canada, Alaska and eastern Siberia. Cranes begin breeding at age 2, and courtship rituals include very elaborate dances and unison calls, all of which begin during the pre-migration gathering.

Nest sites can be found in bogs and marshy areas as long as there is water nearby, and the nest itself is constructed of grass and aquatic plants. Both parents share the incubation of the eggs – usually two – although nighttime duty belongs to the female. Both parents work to rear the chicks, and family units stay together for nine or 10 months. They migrate as a family and join other families along the way.

The sandhill cranes are able to survive to some extent because of protected areas that have been set aside for them. If you want a truly awesome experience, go and visit the areas where they can be seen and get that unbelievable feeling of connecting with an ancient part of nature.


Joan Armer lives in Nevada County and is active in the Audubon Society.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User