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Sandhill Cranes: the first 78 days

Upon moving to the Del Webb Edgewater community in Elgin, Illinois in the spring of 2020, I learned that Sandhill Cranes were a perennial visitor to our new home. I immediately became fascinated with them, intrigued by their beauty and grace, as has been the case with many throughout history, and began photographing them. In April of 2021, while walking our dog, I struck up a conversation with a Del Webb resident. Knowing I was a wildlife photographer, he informed me of the location in our community where a pair of Sandhills had laid eggs. I immediately set out to find them and was quite ecstatic when I saw the pair warily guarding two eggs on a vegetative nest at the shallow south edge of the basin that was just to the north of Creekside Lodge. Thus began my quest to pictorially document the day-to-day progression and early life of a Sandhill Crane.

Every day, from April 23 to July 21, I ventured out in an attempt to digitize the wonder of life that these Sandhill Cranes were experiencing. This was a particularly dry period for our area which made most days quite rewarding, being fortunate enough to make use of that unique combination of lighting and composition to capture a special moment. And there were many, from seeing the newly hatched colts on May 5, to the siblings going for evening strolls with their parents, to seeing a colt make its first flight on July 20. Unfortunately, there was tragedy as well. During the morning of May 18, a coyote took down the smaller of the two colts. I admittedly felt anguish on that cool, overcast evening, when, for the first time, I saw a mother with her lone colt. There were many evenings afterwards where I was secluded in the tall reeds, oppressive heat and swarms of insects attempting to displace the anxious trepidation I felt as I awaited the crane family to return to their nesting site, wondering if something ill-fated had befallen the remaining colt. But eventually, the gray and orange threesome would appear, making their way down into the marsh, and an upsurge of joy filled my heart accompanied by a considerable amount of relief. The emotion was momentary, however. With the cranes arrival, I had to get down to the formidable task of arranging binary zeroes and ones into a memorable instance of life.

Most of the photos were taken when the cranes would return from their daily walks through differing parts of Edgewater to forage at or near the nest, typically between 5:30pm and 6:30pm. Often during this time, the father would take off on a reconnaissance flight of the area to identify any potential predators and return just before 7:00pm when the colts would bed down for the night. A few pictures were taken when our paths would cross at the southwest basin near the Edgewater entrance. I took most of the head shots when the crane family visited my backyard on a few occasions, chasing away the blackbirds, cowbirds, doves, and sparrows to partake of the cracked corn and seed in my bird feeder.

I hope you enjoy viewing the images as much as I did capturing them. Below I have compiled a fairly comprehensive characterization about Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane Characteristics

Taxonomic Hierarchy

  1. Kingdom: Animalia
  2. Phylum: Chordata
  3. Class: Aves
  4. Order: Gruiformes
  5. Family: Gruidae
  6. Subfamily: Gruinae
  7. Genus: Antigone
  8. Species: Antigone Canadensis


The common name, "Sandhill Crane", references the location of the early spring gathering of the cranes along the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska's Sandhills. This is one of the most remarkable wildlife sights in America, with over 250,000 cranes present at one time. The species is ancient, with the earliest Sandhill Crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida.


Sandhill Cranes are very large, tall birds with a long neck, long legs, and very broad wings. They are three to four feet tall and have a wingspan that can be over five feet. The males are slightly larger than females, usually a couple inches taller and can weigh up to 14 lbs. while females weigh around 10 lbs. While Sandhill Cranes are mainly gray birds, some of their feathers can take on a red/orange/brown hue because of their preening. By rubbing mud (rich in iron and often red) on themselves, they end up staining their feathers. Adults have pale cheeks, their crown is red, and their beak and legs are black. Colts (the name for chicks and juveniles) are gray and rusty brown or orange, void of the pale cheek and red crown, and have orange beaks and legs.


Sandhill Cranes spend most of their time in prairies, fields, and freshwater wetlands like marshes, wet grasslands, and river basins. They nest in marshes, bogs, wet meadows, prairies, and other moist habitats, preferring those with standing water.


The omnivorous Sandhill Crane feeds on land as well as in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water, probing with its bill. Their diet is heavy in berries, seeds, and cultivated grains, but also includes tubers, small vertebrates, and invertebrates such as rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, and nestling birds, as well as vegetation such as aquatic plants. Their diet can vary by season.


Sandhill Cranes mate for life, choosing their partners based on dancing displays. Pre-adult cranes practice dancing for years before they select a mate. Dancing facilitates pair bonding and allows rivals to assess one another. Five courtship displays have been identified as part of dancing: the upright wing stretch, horizontal head pump, bow, vertical leap, and vertical toss. Three courtship displays are used exclusively by paired adults to maintain the pair bond and synchronize reproductive development: the bill up, copulation, and unison call displays. Single Sandhill Cranes will start pairing up in the early spring, as the birds are migrating to their breeding grounds. This is when the birds will be at their loudest, as males and females will perform unison calling to create a bond. After their mate passes away, the surviving crane will look for a new mate.


Sandhill Cranes usually nest in small, somewhat isolated wetlands (e.g., marshes, bogs, and swales) in shallow water not more than three inches in depth, though some nest on dry ground close to water. The nest, built by both sexes is constructed from the dominant vegetation in the area (e.g., cattails, sedges, burr reeds, bulrushes, or grasses) using dried plant materials early in the season and adding green materials later on. Both mates may gather material, tossing it over their shoulders to form a mound but the female is usually the one to stand on the mound and arrange the material. Nests may be 30-40 inches across and 4-6 inches high.


A female Sandhill Crane usually lays two eggs, sometimes one, and rarely three. The color of the eggs are a pale brownish yellow to olive, with irregular brown or gray markings. Incubation is by both sexes for 29-32 days. While both parents will perform incubation, the female takes on more of the duty, typically all night and part of the day.


Sandhill Crane colts are precocial; they hatch covered in down, with their eyes open, and able to leave the nest within a day. Both parents brood the colts in the nest for up to three weeks after hatching, feeding them intensively for the first few weeks, then gradually weaning until they reach independence at 9-10 months old. Age at first flight is between 65-75 days. The colts remain with their parents for 9-10 months, accompanying them in migration. After leaving their parents, the colts form nomadic flocks with other juveniles and nonbreeding adults. They remain in these flocks until they form breeding pairs, usually between four and seven years of age.


The Sandhill Crane's call is a loud, rattling "kar-r-r-r-o-o-o" sound. Their unique call is due to the shape of their trachea that coils into the sternum, developing a lower, richer pitch. Their calls can be heard for over a mile. Adult Sandhill Cranes have a repertoire of more than a dozen calls, which can be described as variations on trills, purrs, and rattles. They use these different calls to announce territorial occupation, for social interactions, and to notify others of a nearby predator. One way to distinguish a male crane from a female is when a mated pair performs unison calling since the female makes two calls for every one from the male.


Sandhill Cranes spend the winter in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico before migrating to their breeding grounds in early spring. During this time, the family units group together with other families and nonbreeders, forming loose roosting and feeding flocks, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands. During the spring, the cranes can be seen resting and feeding along rivers and wetlands throughout the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest. The largest congregation of Sandhill Cranes occurs from February to early April along the Platte River in Nebraska. The cranes that nest north of the United States migrate long distances (some crossing the Bering Straits every spring and autumn to and from their nesting grounds in Siberia). Those nesting in the northern and western parts of the continental United States migrate shorter distances. From late spring into early autumn, Sandhill Cranes can be found at their breeding grounds. During migration, Sandhill Cranes can travel more than 200 miles a day. And they're fast fliers, reaching speeds of up to 35mph.


Sandhill Cranes are known to live for 20 years or more with the oldest Sandhill Crane on record being at least 36 years, 7 months old. Sandhill Cranes of all ages are hunted by the North American species of eagles. In addition, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, wolves, cougars, bobcats, and lynx are the main predators of Sandhill Cranes, with the first three mainly hunting young cranes and the latter four more likely to attack adult cranes. Sandhill Cranes defend themselves and their young from aerial predators by jumping and kicking. For land predators, the cranes will move forward, often hissing, with their wings outstretched and their bills pointed in an attempt to discourage an attack. If that fails to deter the predator, the crane will try to stab the predator with its bill (powerful enough to pierce the skull of a small carnivore) and kick with its feet.