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Sandhill Cranes Spotted at Refuge 
by: Joan Stephens of USFWS

One of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge’s most unique visitors has to be the Sandhill Crane.  These birds are among the tallest birds in North America, standing up to 4 feet tall with a wingspread of 6-7 feet.  As of Mon., Nov. 27th, 24 Sandhill Cranes were spotted off of Refuge Lane on the Duck River Unit near New Johnsonville.  This siting is not unusual as the refuge gets a few of these birds migrating through every winter.  However, lately the numbers that stop briefly here are increasing and the length of stay has been a few weeks.


Sandhill cranes are largely gray with a red patch on the crown of the head.  Their long legs are black as are their beaks and feet.  They are wading birds like the Great Blue Heron and spend their time searching for food in large freshwater marshes, prairie ponds, marshy tundra or grainfields.  Their breeding grounds are up north ranging from Siberia and Alaska east across to Arctic Canada to Hudson Bay and south to western Ontario.  The ones that migrate through here are heading to their wintering grounds in the southeast, which can be as far south as Florida.  Hiwassee, a state wildlife refuge area in east Tennessee, has around 4,000 sandhill cranes that consistently use that area. 

Sandhill cranes can migrate in great flocks and assemble in vast numbers at places like the Platte River in Nebraska.  There birdwatchers gather to see what must have been a common sight when the species bred over most of the interior United States.  It is to observe the mating dance that also attracts many birdwatchers.  This mating dance is quite spectacular with members of a pair facing each other and leaping into the air with wings extended and feet thrown forward.  Then they bow to each other and repeat the performance, uttering loud croaking calls.  These courting birds also run about with their wings outstretched and toss tufts of grass in the air. 

There are six races or subspecies of sandhill crane found in North America.  The three subspecies that are non-migratory also have the smallest populations.  Two populations, the Mississippi sandhill and the Cuban sandhill are in danger of extinction, and the Mississippi sandhill crane has a national wildlife refuge devoted to saving that population.  But it’s the larger cousin the whooping crane that is one of the rarest birds in North America and the most famous of the endangered species.  With only 21 cranes in 1940, conservation efforts have increased the number of whooping cranes to a world population of 400, only half of which are in North America.  

Actually some sandhill cranes have had a large role in the conservation efforts of the whooping crane.  Because of their similarity in natural history, sandhill cranes have been used as surrogate parents to raise whooping crane chicks.  

Getting much attention lately has been an unusual experiment exploring the same idea as in a recent movie “Fly Away Home”. In the movie a young girl and her father lead a flock of geese into a migration pattern with ultralight aircrafts. In real life this past October, a hand-raised flock of sandhill cranes were led by an ultralight aircraft from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.  This unusual sandhill migration, took 32 days, traveling 624 miles and passed right through the middle of Tennessee. 

The thought is that if the sandhill cranes complete the journey and return back to Wisconsin on their own in the spring of 2001, the same training procedure and route could be used with whooping crane chicks as part of the second phase of the study.  Pictures and information about this fascinating experiment can be viewed on the web at 

On the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, we can never predict just how long our brief visitors will stay.  Last year a smaller group of sandhill cranes attracted a surprising number of birdwatchers to the refuge due to the fact that they stayed near publicly open roads for several weeks.  To get to the Duck River Unit take highway 70 east from Camden.  At New Johnsonville turn onto Long Street and follow the brown signs to the refuge entrance.