Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)

This article was originally published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as part of its annual report Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in Washington.

Sandhill Crane. Photo by Joseph V. Higbee.
Sandhill Crane. Photo by Joseph V. Higbee.

State Status: Endangered, 1981
Federal Status: None
Recovery Plans: State, 2002


Three subspecies of sandhill crane occur in Washington: a small number of greater sandhills (G. c. tabida) breed in Klickitat and Yakima Counties; about 23,000 lesser sandhills (G. c. canadensis) stop in eastern Washington during migration; and 3,000-4,000 Canadian sandhills ([G. c. rowani] and possibly some lessers and greaters) stop on lower Columbia River bottomlands (Engler et al. 2003), the only major stopover site between northern breeding areas and wintering sites in California. In recent years, up to 1,000 sandhills have wintered on lower Columbia bottomlands, primarily at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (NWR),  Washington, Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, Oregon, and surrounding areas (Littlefield and Ivey 2002). Most of the cranes seen in Washington winter in California.

The greater sandhill cranes that breed in Washington are part of the Central Valley Population, so called because they winter in California's Central Valley.  Other members of this population nest in Oregon, California, Nevada, and interior British Columbia. The lesser sandhill cranes are of the Pacific Flyway Population that stop in Washington during migration between their breeding grounds in Alaska and wintering areas in California.

Historically, sandhill cranes bred in the south-central, northeastern and southeastern regions of Washington, and the southern Puget Sound basin.  Crane numbers were severely reduced due to widespread habitat destruction and unregulated hunting which continued until passage of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916. The species was extirpated as a breeder from the state after 1941 when the last nest was documented at Signal Peak, Yakima County, in south-central Washington (Littlefield and Ivey 2002, Jewett et al. 1953).  After an absence of 31 years, they were found summering in the Glenwood Valley on Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Klickitat County in 1972, but it was not until 1979 that nesting was confirmed. The Conboy Lake NWR provides nesting habitat for most (~80%) of the cranes breeding in Washington.

Sandhill crane nesting habitat in Klickitat County, Washington.

In 2012, a total of 27 breeding pairs were monitored representing the entire known Washington State breeding population of sandhill cranes (Table 1).  A total of 10 juveniles (colts) were banded, of which 8 survived to fledge.  An additional 2 colts that were not banded also fledged later in the season bringing the total juvenile (colt) production in 2012 to 10 birds. The total summer population of greater sandhills in Washington was around 80 birds (not including young of the year).

Since 1996, crane colts at Conboy Lake NWR have been captured at approximately 8 weeks of age, one week before fledging, and have been color-banded with unique two-color combinations that allow identification of individual cranes.  Cranes also have nested at 1 or 2 sites on the Yakama Indian Reservation, and have been observed in several other eastern Washington locations during the breeding season in recent years (e.g., central Cascades, Mount Spokane, Okanogan).

Greater sandhill crane breeding pairs and production in Washington, 1995-2012 (Stocking et al. 2008, USFWS-Conboy NWR, and WDFW data).

Population estimate of greater sandhill cranes in Washington, 1975-2012.

A stable population of cranes typically has a recruitment rate of 7-9%, while a growing population has a recruitment rate of ≥10% (Littlefield and Ivey 2002). Using those figures, the Washington population has been growing slowly since monitoring began (Stocking et al. 2008).  Nesting surveys are conducted in cooperation with the USFWS staff at Conboy National Wildlife Refuge.  A combination of ground and aerial surveys were conducted from April through August of each year (2010-2012) to monitor nesting pairs and juvenile (colt) production.

Use of Washington habitats during migration. The subspecies composition of sandhill cranes which stage and winter along the Lower Columbia River in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington is uncertain, but may include all 3 forms using the Pacific Flyway: lesser, Canadian, and greater. During 2001-02, Ivey et al. (2005) attached satellite transmitters to 6 cranes to ascertain locations of their breeding areas, migration corridors and wintering sites. They reported that these cranes appear to be the intermediate Canadian form (rowani), and the staging counts of cranes along the Lower Columbia River may represent the entire population. They breed along the coast of British Columbia and southeast Alaska and some winter in Washington, while others stop during migration en-route to wintering areas in California. Genetic analyses of samples taken indicate that these rowani are distinct from the lesser and greater subspecies in the Pacific Flyway (Hayes et al. in prep).  Ivey et al. (2005) recommended that they be managed as a unique population due to their limited numbers, distinct coastal migration route, and habitat issues at breeding, staging, and wintering areas.

As the Washington sandhill crane breeding population expands, cranes may re-occupy long vacant sites. Sandhill cranes were observed at a new location on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 2012 (Figure 4), and additional surveys will take place in 2013 to document any nesting attempts.

Conservation. A state recovery plan was completed in 2002 (Littlefield and Ivey 2002), with the goals of restoring a healthy breeding population of cranes and to maintain the flocks that winter or stop in Washington.  Recovery objectives include a breeding population of >65 pairs, with at least 15 of these at sites outside the Glenwood Valley. The greater sandhill crane breeding population in Washington has continued to grow slowly. Several factors can affect Washington's sandhill cranes, particularly on private lands including water availability and management, and incompatible grazing and haying practices. For the migrant cranes, habitat on the lower Columbia bottomlands between Vancouver and Woodland is threatened with industrial development, conversion of agricultural lands to incompatible uses, and crane use is affected by disturbance by hunters and other recreationists. Wind energy project development may affect migrant lesser sandhills in eastern Washington by occasional collision mortalities, and the potential for habitat loss.

Meadow in Gifford Pinchot National Forest where cranes were observed in 2012.

Partners and cooperators: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conboy Lake NWR, Ridgefield NWR, Yakama Nation, U.S. Forest

Service, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, International Crane Foundation, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the West Coast Crane Working Group.

Literature Cited

Engler, J. D., E. D. Anderson, and M. A. Stern. 2003. Population status of fall-migrant sandhill cranes along the lower Columbia River, 2003 report. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and The Nature Conservancy of Oregon.

Hayes, M. A., G. L. Ivey, J. C. Palmer, M. L. Casazza, J. P. Fleskes, C. P. Herziger, B. D. Dugger, and M. E. Berres. In Prep. Population genetic structure of sandhill cranes in the Pacific Flyway of Western North America.

Ivey, G. L.,C. P. Herziger, and T. J. Hoffmann. 2005. Annual movements of Pacific Coast Sandhill Cranes. Proceedings North American Crane Workshop 9:25-35.

Littlefield, C. D., and G. L. Ivey. 2002. Washington State Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Crane. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 71 pp.

Stocking, J., J. D. Engler, and D. P. Anderson. 2007. Final 2007 status report on the breeding population of the Washington state greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida) in Klickitat and Yakima Counties. North American Crane Working Group, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

Stocking, J., D. P. Anderson and J. D. Engler. 2008. 2008 Greater Sandhill Crane breeding season at Conboy Lake NWR, Klickitat County, Washington: Final report. North American Crane Working Group, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2013. Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in Washington: 2012 Annual Report. Listing and Recovery Section, Wildlife Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia. 251 pp.

About the Author: 
Species accounts were compiled by Derek Stinson, Gary Wiles, Gerald Hayes, Jeff Lewis, Lisa Hallock, Steve Desimone, and Joe Buchanan. Many other individuals took time from busy schedules to review species accounts or provide information or documents for this report, including WDFW district and assistant district wildlife biologists, research scientists, and people from other agencies. They include Harriet Allen, David Anderson, Hannah Anderson, Keith Aubry, Lynne Barre, Dana Base, Penny Becker, Scott Becker, Gary Bell, Gretchen Blatz, Joe Buchanan, Steve Desimone, Joe Engler, Greg Falxa, Howard Ferguson, Rich Finger, Scott Fitkin, John Fleckenstein, Eric Gardner, Joe Gaydos, Dawn Gedenberg, Gary Ivey, Lisa Hallock, Molly Hallock, Jeff Heinlen, Eric Holman, Steve Jeffries, Mary Linders, Mike Livingston, Russ Mullins, Travis Nelson, Heidi Newsome, Don Noviello, Brent Norberg, Gail Olson, Ann Potter, Scott Pearson, Leslie Robb, Elizabeth Rodrick, Ella Rowan, Lori Salzer, Chris Sato, Tammy Schmidt, Larry Schwitters, Michelle Tirhi, Laura Todd, Matt Vander Haegen, Jim Watson, and Kristin Wilkinson. Joe Higbee and Rod Gilbert allowed use of many photographs. David Speiser kindly allowed the use of his yellow-billed cuckoo photo.