Sandhill Crane pair at School House Farm in Warren, May 25  Photo by Don Reimer
Sandhill Crane pair at School House Farm in Warren, May 25 Photo by Don Reimer
Although Sandhill Crane sightings are a routine matter in the Midwestern U.S., any sightings in Maine are always noteworthy. Migrant flocks estimated at 450,000 birds arrive along Nebraska's Platte River each fall as they stage for southward migration. These large, graceful birds are comprised of two subspecies: Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes. The "Greater" cranes are non-migratory, while the somewhat smaller "Lesser" species migrates to far northern regions stretching into Canada and Alaska.

Sandhill Cranes were once common migrants to Maine, but numbers dropped in the past century. In the year 2000, a pair was found nesting in a sizeable cattail marsh in the Belgrade area, and a single chick was later discovered. Since that time, several nesting pairs may have established themselves within the state and the frequency of sightings has increased. It is believed that these pioneering birds are part of a gradual eastward range expansion from the Midwest.

Easily distinguished from herons, Sandhill Cranes fly with fully outstretched neck. These cranes have broad, six-foot wings that are well suited for soaring flight. Riding on rising thermals of warm air, cranes can stay aloft for hours while expending limited energy supplies. This energy-saving strategy is effective for long-distance migration. The cranes must run a few steps in order to take off.

In breeding plumage, Sandhills have a grayish neck and rusty body; winter plumage is mostly gray. The crown is a deep red color; the cheek is white and the longish bill is dark. A mound of tufted feathers decorates the rump.

The sexes look alike, with males being slightly larger. Elaborate courtship rituals involve leaping and dancing motions and "unison calling," where the female makes two hoarse trumpeting calls for each single call note given by the male. Cranes do not mate until they are 2 to 7 years old, and average life span may exceed over 20 years. Two eggs are laid by mid-June, and the parents are very protective of their offspring. In fall, family groups usually migrate south together. A bird of freshwater wetlands, Sandhills are omnivores. Their typical diet consists of a broad variety of insects, aquatic plants, small rodents, seeds and berries.