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Hear a story about the sandhill crane.
Hear a sandhill crane.

from The Birds of Texas
by John L. Tveten

If the whooping cranes are the aristocrats of Texas birds, then the sandhills are Everyman's birds. They come in large flocks from the North to spend the winter on the Panhandle plains and in the South Texas brush country. They settle into the rice fields west of Houston and on the prairies along the coast. They stalk majestically through open marshes and grasslands, feeding on a cosmopolitan diet of small animals and aquatic life, insects, grain, green shoots and berries. Ever alert, the wary birds scan the horizon from their four-foot height, ready to take to the air if danger threatens, sounding the alarm with a bugle call.

The gray plumage of the sandhill crane may be stained with rusty red from the iron-rich mud of northern marshes. The bare red skin on the crown and the "bustle" of fluffy feathers distinguish it from the great blue heron. The latter is frequently called a "blue crane," but the two are very different in posture and behavior as well as in their lineage.

Sandhills breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska and in the marshes and grasslands of the northern states. Nests are bulky piles of sticks, reeds or moss and usually contain two eggs. Incubation lasts 28 to 32 days, and it is nearly 10 weeks before the young can fly. In the fall the families band together and head southward to spend the winter in the southwestern states and on into Mexico. A nonmigratory subspecies of the sandhill that nests in Florida and along the eastern Gulf Coast is severely endangered.

The greatest threat to the future of the sandhill crane exists neither on its nesting grounds nor in its winter territory, but rather at a major stopping point on its migratory path. In the spring the cranes assemble by the tens of thousands along the Platte River in Nebraska, feeding on worms and snails in the meadows and on waste corn in the fields. At night they return to the Platte to roost, standing in the shallow water where predators can less readily surprise them.

The gathering of the sandhill cranes is one of the world's premier wildlife spectacles, and people come from across the country to watch the flights. A half million birds make the journey every spring, "the largest concentration of any species of crane anywhere in the world," writes famed bird expert Roger Tory Peterson. Yet the Platte itself is in danger. Water is channeled away for a variety of human uses, and the flow decreases annually. The fate of the sandhills may well depend on the fate of the river, for the habits of the ages are difficult to change.

Excerpts from The Birds of Texas by John L. Tveten with permission from Shearer Publishing, Inc.

More Bird Facts

Fifteen species of cranes occur throughout the world, inhabiting every continent except South America and Antarctica. Two species, the whooping crane and the sandhill crane, occur in North America.

Six sub-species of sandhill cranes are found in North America, three of which occur in Texas.

Cranes are tall, stately birds that stand approximately five feet with a five-foot wingspan.

Cranes that breed in the northern latitudes make long migration flights, soaring high on thermals and flying in lines or V-formations like geese.

Elaborate courtship displays involve leaping and prancing in wild dances.

Their sonorous call is made possible by an extraordinarily long windpipe coiled within the breastbone.

Hear Interviews with Experts

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Crane Migration
Tracking Sandhill Cranes
More on Tracking Sandhill Cranes

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This website was a project of the Passport to Texas Radio Series and Texas Parks & Wildlife from 1999-2001 | Website designed by Pallasart Web Design | © 2002 KJ Productions and audioeclips | Photograph © John L. Tveten