Above: A pair of Sandhill Cranes in a muddy, cultivated field near Lac du Bonnet; by Peter Taylor
How do I recognize it?
Up to 1.2 metres tall, the long-legged, long-necked Sandhill Crane is one of Manitoba’s largest birds. The adult’s grey plumage is stained with varying amounts of red-brown, iron-rich mud that is smeared into the plumage when preening, apparently to make the birds less conspicuous. Other features include a dagger-like bill, a scarlet patch of bare skin on the crown, and a tail-like “bustle” that is actually formed from elongated tertial wing-feathers. Sometimes confused with Great Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes often form large flocks and fly with their necks outstretched rather than folded back in the manner of a heron. Whether on the ground or flying, they are often first detected by their strident, bugling calls.
Above: A small flock of Sandhill Cranes near Whitemouth; by Peter Taylor
Does it migrate?
Sandhill Cranes nest across much of Canada, some of the northernmost U.S.A., and eastern Siberia. They migrate to parts of the southern U.S.A. and northern Mexico for the winter. Huge numbers famously pause at the Platte River in Nebraska during spring migration. The first spring arrivals in Manitoba are usually around the end of March; fall departures are mostly in September in eastern parts of the province, but as late as November in the southwest.
Above: Spring dancing practice in a pasture near Whitemouth; by Peter Taylor
Where does it live?
In southern Manitoba, Sandhill Cranes favour areas where sprouting grain fields in spring, or stubble in fall, provide food close to secluded boreal wetlands (especially open fens) where they can roost and nest in peace. Look for “dancing” courtship behaviour among spring flocks.
Above: Time to back off – an anxious Sandhill Crane has young nearby along a wet, forest trail near Grand Rapids; by Peter Taylor
Where can I see it?
Some of the best places to see Sandhill Cranes in Manitoba are near the southern edge of the boreal forest, for example in the Whitemouth-Hadashville area and the southern Interlake. Large flocks of migrants stage near Oak Lake until late fall.
Above: A pair of Sandhill Cranes guard their two chicks while foraging in a meadow near Ste.-Geneviève; by Peter Taylor
Sandhill Cranes are subject to regulated hunting in Manitoba and elsewhere, earning them nicknames such as “ribeye of the sky” or even “flying filet mignon” as well as the confusing “wild turkey”. Nevertheless, recent population trends are upward, and the breeding range has expanded eastward across Canada, representing a major recovery from drastic declines in the early 20th century.
Above: Part of a fall flock of Sandhill Cranes in a stubble field near Whitemouth; by Peter Taylor
Did you know:
Sandhill Cranes, like waterfowl, become flightless for some weeks during the summer moult, because they lose most of their flight feathers at once. As a result, they become very difficult to find in July as they hide in tall vegetation.
Written by, Peter Taylor