The majestic sandhill is one of two North American cranes. There are six subspecies of sandhill, three migrate from northern Canada and the arctic to the southern U.S., Mexico and Cuba, the other three non-migratory species reside year round in the southern parts of the U.S. It is grey with white cheeks and a bald red forehead. While the coloring of the plumage is classified as gray, it is often observed as rust brown, which occurs when the undersides of the cranes get stained from iron rich tundra ponds or camouflaged with dirt. When agitated, it will charge with wings outstretched, uttering loud warning honks, and the red spot on the head will turn a bright red.
It is a tall bird, up to a meter and a half (4-5 ft) high, with a wingspan of two meters (6 ft) in length. Males are typically 30% larger than their female counterparts, weighing an average of five kilos (11-12 lbs) and females are about four kilos (8-10 lbs).
The sandhill prefers the wet habitat of remote bogs and marshes. It is an omnivore and feeds on a variety of grasses, grains, slugs, snails, fish, roots and berries. It will eat almost anything it can forage. Their lifespan can reach twenty years in the wild but the average lifespan is seven years. They can survive significantly longer in captivity and with the aid of recent conservation efforts that preserve their wild habitat.
The crane is renown for an elaborate courtship display. The pair dance, hopping, kicking their legs at one another, bowing, spreading their wings and flinging sticks. Then they share a unison call, which is a duet they honk. Cranes have different trachea than similar water fowl species of North America, their trachea is looped and rests in a cavity of their sternum that allows them to produce low brassy sounds. Their honks can be heard up to one and a half kilometers away (1m) They are monogamous breeders but are admired for their ritualized communal migrations where up to 2000 birds can flock together. One bird will start the dance and the rest will start.
The birds pair off and mate at three years. They will find a remote area and build a large nest (1 meter, 2-3 feet in diameter) on the edge of water. They will surround the nest with a moat
and build it 8-12 centimeters (3-4 inches) above the water
. The pair will lay one to three eggs but two is the norm. The greenish brown dark speckled eggs
will be laid one to two days apart. The both will nest, but the male assumes primary territorial guardianship and the female broods the eggs. The eggs typically hatch in thirty days; the first laid hatches and begins to grow one to two days ahead. Often, the first hatched will kill the sibling to enhance survival. The young bird will then leave the nest in one day, returning at night for protection. It will remain with the parents until the next breeding season.
Non-migratory species in Cuba, Florida and Missouri breed anywhere from February until August. Migratory species breed from April to May.
Sandhills can fly up to Eighty km an hour (50mph), and up to 800 km in a day. They fly high in the sky using slow downward strides, often catching thermal tides to carry them effortlessly. Often confused with the great blue heron, you can distinguish cranes by their flight pose: herons have an S shaped neck, tucking in their shoulders, cranes fly straight with their necks and legs extended, like geese.
The sandhill is a neat and wondrous bird and one of three of the fifteen species of crane that is not endangered.