The sandhill crane is a large tall bird with long legs and neck but a relatively medium length bill. Its color is typically gray, although in Yellowstone the birds often appear to be reddish brown, a result of red soil (iron oxide) picked up on their beaks and spread on their plumage during preening which helps camouflaging the bird during nesting. They also have an unmistakable red crown on the tip of the head. While in flight their neck is extended straight as compared with the Great Blue Heron who flies with its neck folded. The call of the sandhill crane can be heard at great distances and sounds like a long rattle - garooo a a a guttural call. Once you have heard this call you will not likely mistake it for any other bird.
Sandhill Cranes prefer small open wet meadows but can also be found in dry meadows and along the edge of aspen groves, willows and lodgepole pine stands.
Behavior The sandhill cranes that call Yellowstone home in summer spend their winters in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and Mexico. While on their wintering grounds, sandhill cranes feed on a variety of seeds including newly planted or harvested wheat, corn and sorghum, and insects, worms, etc. In summer they feed more in marshy and wet meadows on a variety of insects, amphibians and rodents. They are very good at walking and may walk great distances while feeding.During summer months, sandhills are found in pairs and tend to be reclusive. During migration, however, on their way to their wintering grounds they form large family flocks of up to 200 birds. When these flocks join together in staging areas it is not uncommon to see a thousand cranes in a field or meadow.One of the Crane's most unique and enjoyable behaviors to watch is their courtship dance. If you are lucky enough to see this dance you will find yourself captivated by this behavior. The dance which usually occurs between paired birds can go on for quite some time. It begins with the birds high stepping on the ground while at the same time partially raising their wings. They then take turns leaping into the air, wings partially spread and legs hanging below. Interspersed throughout this mating ritual are various forms of neck and head bending and bowing.The sandhill cranes of Yellowstone are much easier to hear than see, so listen for them to arrive sometime late March to early April. If you are determined to see the cranes your best chances of finding them in Yellowstone are in the Bechler and Fountain Flats areas or the park. They normally leave the park in September, thus completing a year in the life of a Yellowstone sandhill crane.