California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Bay Delta Region

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Scott Wilson

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Stanislaus River Report


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> Stanislaus River Basin and Calaveras River Water Use Program
Threatened and Endangered Species Report - March 1995
Bay Delta and Special Water Projects Division, CA Dept of Fish and Game

Greater Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis tabida

Listed as Threatened by the State of California


Life History

The sandhill crane is a monomorphic species reaching 41 inches in length with a wingspan of 73 inches (National Geographic 1983). The body is grayish with white cheeks when the bird is clean but it often preens with mud staining the back and breast with a rusty brown color; the legs and feet are completely black. Adults have a cap of red, while the immature cranes have a completely brown head and neck feathers.

Cranes do not rely on standing water as much as herons or egrets and they avoid saline water altogether. They often roost in flocks in moist fields or standing water (Terres 1980) but also frequently roost in the fields or meadows in which they are feeding. In summer, they occur in and near wet meadows, shallow lacustrine, and fresh emergent wetland habitats (Beedy 1988); during the winter they visit grasslands and agricultural grain fields where favored commercial grains are available. Other food items include grass shoots, worms, insects, aquatic invertebrates, and small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. Fruits and berries are eaten if available (Eckert and Karalus 1981).

Courtship and breeding takes place from April to July with the last nests occurring in August. Large groups of birds that often include 50 to 80 individuals (Eckert and Karalus 1981) gather in fields and ponds to pair up, often for life. Nests are commonly constructed out of matted tules and rushes, or on muskrat houses. Ideal sites are on small islands screened by tall tules, cattails, or shrubs (Harrison 1978). A single clutch of two eggs is laid which is incubated for approximately 30 days. The hatchlings are born precocial and stay with the parents for about a year, during which time the chicks may split up, one per parent to avoid competition. Sandhill cranes are able to fly after 70 days, obtain adult plumage in about two and a half years, and are ready to breed in their fourth year.

Findings and Conclusions

Sandhill cranes breed and spend their summers from Alaska and northern Canada, down to the great lakes region, and west to northeastern California. Some year-round populations reside in Florida. They winter in California's Central Valley, southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and south through Central America. Greater sandhill cranes are known to breed in northern California in Siskiyou, Modoc, Lassen, Plumas, and Sierra counties (McCaskie et al. 1979). The California breeding population winters chiefly in the Central Valley (Beedy 1988).

Large flocks of sandhill cranes were observed at the Faith Ranch near the Stanislaus River and San Joaquin River confluence in December, 1994. The observed cranes were feeding on perennial grasses and commercial grains that are produced at the ranch.

The project as described to CDFG involving the Stanislaus River would probably not negatively affect the management of the Faith or Mapes Ranch and therefore not affect the wintering population of sandhill cranes.