The Buzz

Migration watch: Sandhill cranes are heading north, so keep your eyes and ears peeled

Two sandhill cranes flying overhead.
(Photo courtesy of Mathew Zook)

Spring migration has only just begun, with some of our earliest arrivals, like red-winged blackbirds and some migratory ducks, just starting to pop up in Will County. Another bird you may see — or more likely hear — in the coming days and weeks is the sandhill crane.

Migration for these elegant cranes is in full swing, with late February into March about the time they start being seen in the area with regularity each year. Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes migrate from their wintering grounds in New Mexico and Texas to their breeding grounds in the northern part of the continent. In the past few weeks, we've seen increased sightings of sandhill cranes in northern Illinois. 


Most sandhill cranes utilize the Central Flyway — one of four flyways in North America — for their migration, but some traverse the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Illinois. In fact, northern Illinois is part of what is considered a key staging area for their spring journey, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

During their migrations, the cranes typically fly 200 miles to 300 miles each day, clocking speeds of 25 mph to 35 mph, according to the National Audubon Society. With a good tail wind, they can travel up to 500 miles in a single day.

Sandhill cranes typically breed and nest in marshes, bog, wet meadows and other open wetlands, and as they pass through our area, it's common to see them resting in local wetlands and grasslands.

More often than not, though, it's their loud, bugling call as they fly overhead that alerts us to their presence. And you may hear their call long before they come into view, because it's loud enough to be heard from 2 1/2 miles away, Cornell Lab reports.

Sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life. During their migrations, family groups join together into loose flocks that roost and feed together, Cornell Lab reports. Sometimes these flocks can number into the thousands, although much smaller groupings are more common.

While most of the sandhill cranes we see at this time of year will continue on into the far northern United States or Canada, some will end their journey here, spending the summer breeding season in the area before returning south for the winter. 

Sandhill cranes are considered one of the oldest living birds on Earth, according to the Audubon Society. A 2.5-million-year-old fossil from a sandhill crane has been uncovered in Florida, and a fossil from a crowned crane — a close relative to the sandhill — that dates back about 10 million years has been unearthed in Nebraska.



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