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Something about Sandhill Cranes

A sandhill crane sits atop a nest incubating eggs.

Something about sandhill cranes catches our attention in northern Yellowstone.

The cranes fly up to 200 miles per day when migrating north to their spring nesting grounds here, announcing their arrival in an insistent and raspy chorus. Their unmistakable calls — made possible by long windpipes that curl into their sternums, adding richness — can be heard from miles away and are an integral part of our spring soundtrack, joining the vocalizations of yellow-headed blackbirds, western meadowlarks, and warbling vireos.

The ancient cranes elegantly stalk – stiff legged and prehistoric looking – through glacially sculpted wetlands that have likely served as their nesting grounds for thousands of years. A minute period of time, really, when considering the 2.5 million years the fossil record indicates the cranes have been in existence. Not only do they look prehistoric, but this makes sandhill cranes one of the oldest living known bird species.


Sandhill cranes dance atop frozen wetlands in spring.
One could argue the story of the sandhill is filled with romance. Sandhill roans and mares form a pair bond for life, starting at around two years of age, through the more than two decades they can live and breed. They hop, twirl, wing stretch, and head bob in an elaborate dance, usually to commence their annual mating season. This display is practiced in unison by both sexes and helps them attract a mate. Later on, the dancing helps the birds strengthen pair bonding with their chosen partner. The cranes also seem to prioritize a collaborative approach to incubating eggs and raising their colts, where both parents are active participants.

A sandhill crane wades through wetland grasses.
Mares and roans take turns sitting on sandy-colored eggs in two-hour shifts, with the female taking over during nighttime. Their nests are typically camouflaged mounds crafted from nearby wetland grasses and sedges, and both the birds and nests blend incredibly into the landscape. Incubation takes about a month. And, like anything, practice makes perfect when it comes to nesting; the more times a pair raises colts the higher the chances their babies will make it to adulthood.

In Yellowstone, the habitat development and degradation happening elsewhere doesn’t affect sandhill cranes so much. Here, the cranes’ battle is mostly keeping eggs and colts safe from ground-dwelling threats including foxes and coyotes. Once in awhile, the cranes lose out to one of these opportunistic omnivores and will need to wait another year before trying again, taking away whatever lessons are to be learned from their experience. Some of our guests on tour witnessed a coyote stealing sandhill eggs and the cranes’ valiant attempts to distract it away from their nest. Photos compliment of Yellowstone Wild guide and owner Emil McCain and Yellowstone Wild guide Isaac Rath. Videos compliment of Yellowstone Wild guide Aleksa Brill.


Moments like these, where our guests find themselves unexpectedly engaged and immersed in their natural surroundings, define our goal as company of inspiring a sense of curiosity and wonder. Book a tour and see what Yellowstone National Park has to offer – and find your wild Yellowstone on tour with us!