Antigone canadensis canadensis, A. c. tabida
Status: Abundant regular spring and fall migrant central, common west, uncommon east. Rare regular breeder Panhandle and north-central, rare casual breeder Rainwater Basin. Rare casual summer visitor statewide. Rare casual winter visitor central Platte River Valley.
Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM7836, 19 Mar 1959 Overton, Dawson Co.
Taxonomy: This species was moved recently from genus Grus to genus Antigone (Krajewski et al 2010).
Recent authors (Clements et al 2016, Gill and Donsker 2017) recognize five subspecies, following Rhymer et al (2001) who found that rowani and tabida were genetically indistinguishable, and were part of a clade including sedentary United States subspecies pratensis of Georgia and Florida, and pulla of Mississippi; Cuban nesiotes was not included in the study. Long-distance migrant subspecies canadensis belonged to a clade genetically distinct from the other subspecies in the study.
The epithet tabida has precedence over rowani; thus, Nebraska birds are canadensis and tabida.
In a recent publication (Central Flyway Webless Migratory Game Bird Technical Committee 2018, “CFMC”) regarding the Mid-Continent Population (MCP) of Sandhill Cranes, satellite telemetry studies are cited that suggest four MCP “breeding affiliations” i.e. non-contiguous breeding sub-populations: Western Alaska-Siberia, northern Canada-Nunavut, West-central Canada-Alaska, and East-central Canada/Minnesota (Krapu et al 2011, 2014). Based on mitochondrial DNA studies (Krapu 2011, 2014), the first two affiliations are >92% subspecies canadensis, and the last two >85% tabida (CFMC Table A1). The ranges of these breeding affiliations are shown in MCP Figure 2 (page 8); all four affiliations stage on the Platte River in spring.
Lingle (1994) considered about 80% of the Sandhill Cranes which migrate through Nebraska to be canadensis (Lesser Sandhill Crane), and 20% rowani plus tabida (Greater sandhill Crane). Recent genetic sampling of the population in the central Platte River Valley suggests, however, that Greater Sandhill Cranes (tabida plus rowani) comprise about 42% of the total (Krapu et al 2014).
A large number of Sandhill Cranes killed in a severe hailstorm in Hall Co 24 Mar 1996 were expertly prepared by Thomas Labedz at UNSM; exposed culmen measurements of single females at the large and small extremes clearly assigned them to tabida (culmen 127, tarsus 220, ZM17404) and canadensis (culmen 89, tarsus 162, ZM17423) respectively, based on measurements in Pyle (2008). There were numerous intermediate birds; presumably these comprised the lower end of the mensural range of tabida (sensu Rhymer et al 2001, Pyle 2008).
Changes Since 2000: Sandhill Crane has bred sporadically in the Rainwater Basin since the mid-1990s and more consistently in the north and west since the early 2000s.
Sandhill Crane staging patterns in the central and upper Platte River regions appear to be evolving in response to changing land use (Buckley 2011). Increasing numbers have been observed in Lincoln, Keith and Garden Counties in recent years and others have noted concentrations pushing east of the traditional staging areas in the Big Bend reach of the Platte River.
Surveys conducted during the last week in Feb by the Crane Trust (cranetrust.org) have indicated a large increase in numbers in the area between Chapman, Merrick Co and Overton, Dawson Co; for 2017 and 2016, 194,825 (+/- 7.3%) and 213,650 (+/-5.1%) were counted respectively, whereas the highest previous tally reported for these surveys was in 2009, when 62,900 were present.
In addition to changes in the spatial distribution, emerging information suggests Sandhill Crane migration is also shifting temporally based on weekly aerial surveys conducted by the Crane Trust (cranetrust.org), as birds are arriving and numbers are peaking earlier in spring than has been traditionally observed, likely in response to changes in climate.
Spring: Jan 23, 24, 24 <<<>>> May 21, 22, 22
The first arrivals often appear in late Jan, although these birds may retreat southward during periods of inclement winter weather. There are earlier reports 14-28 Jan 2011 near Scottsbluff, Scotts Bluff Co and 16 Jan 2000 and 18 Jan 1999 in the central Platte River Valley; 200 were in Lincoln Co 15 Jan 2009 and 90 in Kearney Co by 15 Jan 1995. There are later reports 25 May 1997 at Funk WPA, Phelps Co, 29 May 2001 in Otoe Co, and 29 May 2016 at Rowe Sanctuary, Buffalo Co, and “spring stragglers have been seen as late as early June” in the Keith Co area (Brown and Brown 2001). Most depart by the end of Apr.
Peak numbers occur 20 Mar-5 Apr, when over 250,000 may be present between Grand Island and Kearney (Lingle 1994). A notable peak count was the 598,000 between Overton, Dawson Co and Chapman, Merrick Co in the central Platte River Valley 24 Mar 2018 (Caven 2018). There are at least two possibly discrete groups apart from those in the central Platte River Valley: about 25,000 occupy an area east of Hershey in Lincoln Co where counts have been in the 10,000-25,000 range since at least 2005 (Silcock 2005, 2013) and 40,000-50,000 used meadows in the Clear Creek WMA, Garden Co in 2005 (Silcock 2005). Numbers are increasing in Scotts Bluff Co, where up to 5000 were present 5-19 Mar 2016 (Silcock 2016).
Since the 1990s, when modern breeding began, sightings into May in suitable habitat are likely non-breeding sub-adults. A photo of eight birds in Lincoln Co 8-9 May 2015 showed four birds resembling adults and four young birds; yearlings of tabida may remain in pre-breeding flocks during their second summer (Gerber et al 2014), thus the older birds in the flock were likely non-breeding sub-adults (see Summer).
In spring, this species has become regular in the east; flocks generally consist of fewer than 100 birds, although “hundreds” flew over Creighton, Knox Co 23 Mar 2015.
Birds trapped and outfitted with satellite transmitters (n=153) along the Platte River 1998-2003 during spring subsequently migrated to points that collectively covered a large geographic area encompassing eastern Hudson Bay west across Canada extending to portions of eastern Siberia (Krapu et al 2011).
Summer: Sandhill Cranes nested in most of Nebraska until about the beginning of the 20th century (Bruner et al (1904). Unregulated hunting, coupled with habitat loss, contributed to the species’ extirpation as a breeder.
Iowa’s first breeding record in about 100 years was in 1992 (Kent and Dinsmore 1996), and, beginning in the mid-1990s, sightings of juveniles with adults in Nebraska began to accumulate in the Rainwater Basin (Jorgensen 2002, 2012). Breeding was first confirmed when a pair with two downy colts was found at Harvard WPA, Clay Co 29 May 1999, and a pair with a single juvenile was found in early Jun the same year at Kissinger Basin WMA, Clay Co (Hoffman 1999). Evidence suggests breeding had probably occurred previously; in 1994, two adults and two juveniles were seen in Clay Co (Jorgensen 2002), in 1995, a family group was in Fillmore Co 3 Sep, and in 1998, two adults with two juveniles were seen 16-22 Aug 1998 at a small private basin in eastern Clay Co where an adult had been observed Aug 1994 (Jorgensen 2002). During the same period, 1992-1999, there were seven summer reports of adults, including pairs, in the Rainwater Basin (Jorgensen 2002) and one report in Platte Co in 1995
Jorgensen (2002, 2003, 2012) summarized the breeding season observations from 1992 through 2003 in the eastern Rainwater Basin; there were six breeding records at three locations. Since then, two adults with an immature were at County Line WPA, Clay Co 31 Aug 2010, but there has been no confirmed breeding 2011-2015 in the Rainwater Basin even though adults and pairs were observed somewhat regularly during summer. Variable water levels at Rainwater Basin wetlands may preclude regular nesting by this species in this region.
Since 2000, breeding has occurred at widespread locations. A pair summered in the vicinity of Hat Creek Basin Ranch, Sioux Co, in 2002, but no young were seen. The adults returned in 2003 and raised two young, the family group foraging in meadow and hayed meadow stubble. The adults returned in 2004 but remained only until Jun because of the very dry conditions and lack of water (Larry Wickersham, personal communication). In the same area, along Bodarc Road, a pair with a colt was seen 14 Jun 2013. A pair at Chet and Jane Fleisback WMA at Facus Springs, Morrill Co, began breeding in 2005, raising a colt that year, then 1-2 each year through 2011, but no colt was seen in 2012 and there were no reports 2013-2015, until a pair with a colt was seen 2 Jun 2016. A pair was seen at Kiowa WMA, Sioux Co in 2009-2010, but no colts were seen until there were brief glimpses of probably two colts 21 Jun 2011; a colt was present 26 May 2012, but none were seen 2013-2014. In 2015 the pair had a half-grown young bird 16 Jul and two young were with the adults 10 Oct. Only one adult was seen there 11 Jun 2017. A pair with two juveniles in Rock Co 15 Aug 2006 suggested breeding there; adults with two colts were present 18 Jun 2008. Breeding occurred at Hutton Ranch, Rock Co in 2013, where two colts were fledged but one was found dead and the fate of the other was unknown. Breeding again occurred there in 2017 and also just west of there on private property. An additional report of breeding in 2017 was in east-central Rock Co (Gordon Warrick, NPS, personal communication). Paired birds have been in Knox Co around the confluence of the Verdigre and Niobrara Rivers for several years, and have bred there; a pair was seen there 29 Jul 2017, and a pair seen earlier on 20 Jun at Bazile Creek WMA, about 3-4 miles east, were likely the same birds. A new location is Agate Fossil Beds NM, Sioux Co, where a pair with two young was seen 10 Jun 2017. In Saunders Co, reports from a wetland one mile north of Lake Wanahoo in 2017 were suggestive of breeding there; one was there 1 Jul and three on 25 Jul, followed by several reports of three through 12 Nov. An interesting sighting was the copulation of a pair of Greater Sandhill Cranes (A. c. tabida) along the Platte River in Hall Co 9 Mar 2017 (Caven and Buckley 2017). This date is about a month earlier and further south than previous egg dates and known breeding locations (see above) in Nebraska; however, as discussed below (see Comments), the use of wet meadows in the Central Platte River Valley is important in stimulation of pair bonding (Tacha 1988).
There are at least 28 reports 20 May-28 Jul of adults, often in suitable breeding habitat, but without evidence of breeding; these are from Garden, Cherry, Holt, Boyd, Rock, Antelope, Dixon, Dakota, Garfield, Valley, Custer, Lincoln, Dawson, Furnas, Buffalo, Phelps, Hall, Seward, Butler, Burt and Saunders Cos. Most of these reports may be of summering sub-adults, as discussed in Spring, but some may be local breeders. One at Eppley Airfield, Douglas Co, hardly suitable breeding habitat, 28 Jul 2015 was probably a wandering non-breeder.
Fall: Aug 27, 31, Sep 2<<<>>> Dec 1, 3, 4
Fall migration is markedly different than spring migration. Sandhill Cranes migrate quickly through the state, stop over for relatively brief periods and do not concentrate along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Lingle (1994) noted peak numbers are lower than 10,000, usually occur in the second half of Oct, and usually in the western half of the state. Rosche (1992) considered it “abundant to very abundant” in fall in the northwest. High Counts (below) are in the first half of Oct and indeed reflect a westerly distribution. Some 90% of fall reports are in Oct, 60% of these in the period 5-20 Oct (Lingle 1994).
Of interest is the observation that highest numbers in the east occur somewhat later, in Nov (see High Counts). It has been suggested that most Canadian and United States breeders migrate to the east of westerly-migrating canadensis, albeit with some overlap (Tremaine 1970, Krapu et al 2014). Sandhill Cranes are, however, uncommon in the east, generally occurring in small flocks of fewer than 100 birds, although following very strong northwesterly winds, an amazing 1200 were in eastern Lancaster Co 11 Nov 1998 and 336 over Blair, Washington Co the same day.
Most depart by mid-Nov although on occasion large numbers have lingered well into Dec, notably 5000 on the Grand Island CBC 15 Dec 1990 and 200 on the Kearney CBC 21 Dec 1971. There are only about 15 reports in Dec in addition to those discussed above, distributed statewide 3-27 Dec.
- High counts: 30,000 in Morrill Co 7 Oct 1994, 5416 in Scotts Bluff Co 16 Oct 1999, 5000 there 13 and 14 Oct 2005, and 5000 in Hayes Co 26 Oct 2005. In the east, 1200 in Lancaster Co 11 Nov 1998, 500 over Dodge Co 19 Nov 2015, and 160 over Seward and Lancaster Cos 16 Nov 2007.
Winter: Wintering has occurred in the Central Platte Valley (Lingle 1994); the winter of 2011-2012 saw an unprecedented 3000+ wintering in the Hall and Buffalo Cos area (Harner et al 2015). Again, in 2012-2013, between 200 and 1000 wintered in the Grand Island-Doniphan area; arrival of spring migrants was noted in the area 10 Feb, when numbers around Doniphan “increased dramatically”. There have been no additional reports of wintering of large numbers since the winter of 2012-13, however.
In addition to the few Dec reports (see above), there are these additional reports of birds which may have wintered, notably these in Lincoln Co: 26 Nov-“winter” 1964, 7 Jan 1983, 8 Jan 1974, 12 on 8 Jan 2006, 14 Jan 1962, 17 Jan 1975, and 17 Jan 1979. Other reports are 18 Jan 2002 Scotts Bluff Co, 24 on 7 Jan 2006 Hall Co, and 6 Jan 2001 and 11 Jan 1994 Buffalo Co. Some of these Jan reports may be of early spring migrants (see Spring).
Comments: Lingle (1994) discussed the habitat requirements and habits of this species during migration in central Nebraska. Largest numbers have traditionally occurred between Grand Island and Kearney, a narrow migration corridor very important as a spring staging area. Here, birds roost at night in the shallow Platte River and feed in wet meadows and agricultural fields generally within five miles of the Platte River, although some may wander as far as 20 miles to feeding sites (Sidle et al 1993). Recent research is showing that wet meadows, a critical requirement as a protein and nutrient source and for social interaction and bonding, is limited to within 1000 yards of the Platte River (Tacha 1988); as much time is spent foraging in wet meadows as is spent feeding on corn as a calorie source (Krapu et al 1982, Davis and Vohs 1993, Sparling and Krapu 1994). On average, the stopover time in the Central Platte Valley varies by “affiliation” (see Taxonomy) from 18-28 days, with longer distance migrants (mostly Lesser Sandhill Cranes) staying longer (Krapu et al 2014). Greater Sandhill Cranes arrive earlier, stay a shorter period, and leave earlier than Lesser Sandhill Cranes (Krapu et al 2014). During the stopover, the average crane gains about 0.5 pounds of fat (Lingle 1994).
Sandhill Crane distribution during spring along the Platte River is changing, likely in response to land use that affects habitat and resource availability (Buckley 2011) as well as changes in the river. Reduced availability of waste corn due to more efficient harvesting equipment may be reducing food resources in this area (Krapu et al 2004, Sherfy et al 2011). Water development projects along the Platte and South Platte Rivers during the past century have led to as much as a 90% loss of Platte River stream flows, which has led to a narrowing of channels and serious vegetation encroachment through natural succession (Williams 1978). Most roost sites in the central Platte River are maintained only through persistent vegetation management, including annual disking of river channels.
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NM: National Monument
NPS: National Park Service
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)
Andrew Caven provided numerous helpful comments that improved this species account.
Brown, C.R., and M.B. Brown. 2001. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station. Occasional Papers of the Cedar Point Biological Station, No. 1.
Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Buckley, T.J. 2011. Habitat use and abundance patterns of Sandhill Cranes in the Central Platte River Valley, Nebraska, 2003-2010. Master’s Thesis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
Caven, A. 2018. Sandhill Crane counts – week 6. Crane Trust blog post, accessed 2 April 2018.
Caven, A.J., and E.M.B. Buckley. 2017. Greater Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis tabida) copulation detected along the Big Bend of the Platte River, south-central Nebraska. NBR 85: 83-84.
Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2016. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2016, accessed 30 January 2018.
Davis, C.A., and P.A. Vohs. 1993. Role of macroinvertebrates in spring diet and habitat use of Sandhill Cranes. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Science 20: 81-86.
Gerber, B.D., J.F. Dwyer, S.A. Nesbitt, R.C. Drewien, C.D. Littlefield, T.C. Tacha, and P. A. Vohs. 2014. Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.31
Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.
Harner, M.J., G.D. Wright, and K. Geluso. 2015. Overwintering Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) in Nebraska, USA. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 127: 457-466.
Hoffman, R. 1999. Sandhill Cranes nest in Nebraska. Nebraskaland 77: 9.
Jorgensen, J.G. 2002. The changing status of Sandhill Crane breeding in the eastern Rainwater Basin. NBR 70: 122-127.
Jorgensen, J.G. 2012. Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
Kent, T.H., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1996. Birds in Iowa. Publshed by the authors, Iowa City and Ames, Iowa, USA.
Krajewski C., J. Sipiorski, and F. Anderson. 2010. Complete mitochondrial genome sequences and the phylogeny of cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae). Auk 127: 440–452.
Krapu, G.L., D.A. Brandt, and R.R. Cox. Jr. 2004. Less waste corn, more land in soybeans, and the switch to genetically modiﬁed crops: trends with important implications for wildlife management. Wildlife Society Bulletin 3: 127–136.
Krapu, G.L., D.A. Brandt, K.L. Jones, and D.H. Johnson. 2011. Geographic distribution of the mid‐continent population of Sandhill Cranes and related management applications. Wildlife Monographs, 175: 1-38.
Krapu, G.L., Reinecke, K.J., and C.R. Frith. 1982. Sandhill cranes and the Platte River. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 47:542–552.
Lingle, G.R. 1994. Birding Crane River: Nebraska’s Platte. Harrier Publishing, Grand Island, Nebraska, USA.
Pyle, P. 2008. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part II, Anatidae to Alcidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.
Rhymer, J.M., M.G. Fain, J.E. Austin, D.H. Johnson, and C. Krajewski. 2001. Mitochondrial phylogeography, subspeciﬁc taxonomy, and conservation genetics of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis; Aves: Gruidae). Conservation Genetics 2: 203-218. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1012203532300
Sherfy, M.H., M.J. Anteau, and A.A. Bishop. 2011. Agricultural Practices and Residual Corn During Spring Crane and Waterfowl Migration in Nebraska. Journal of Wildlife Management 75: 995–1003.
Sidle, J.G., H.G. Nagel, R. Clark, C. Gilbert, D. Stuart, K. Willburn, and M. Orr. 1993. Aerial thermal infrared imaging of sandhill cranes on the Platte River, Nebraska. Remote Sensing of Environment 43: 333-341.
Silcock, W.R. 2005. Spring Field Report, March-May 2005. NBR 73: 46-67.
Silcock, W.R. 2013. Spring Field Report, Mar 2013 to May 2013. NBR 81: 50-79.
Silcock, W.R. 2016. Spring Field Report, Mar 2016 to May 2016. NBR 84: 58- 85.
Sparling, D.W., and G.L. Krapu. 1994. Communal roosting and foraging behavior of staging Sandhill Cranes. The Wilson Bulletin 106: 62-77.
Tacha, T.C. 1988. Social organization of sandhill cranes from midcontinental North America. Wildlife Monographs No. 99.
Tremaine, M. 1970. Sandhill Cranes. NBR 38: 23-25.
Williams, G.P. 1978. The case of the shrinking channels–the North Platte and Platte Rivers in Nebraska. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 781.
Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2018. Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online.