Sandhill Cranes are believed to be the oldest living bird species, having existed for more than 9 million years in their present form. The cranes are Michigan’s largest bird, measuring up to five feet tall with wings spanning an impressive six to seven feet. Thousands of these majestic birds return annually to roost at Big Marsh Lake in Baker Sanctuary before completing their autumn migration to Florida. With more than 9,000 Sandhill Cranes counted in October 2009, Baker Sanctuary set a new single-day state record for crane numbers. Saved from the brink of extinction, cranes have become a Michigan environmental success story.
In general, Sandhill Cranes are numerous and their populations increased by about 4.5% per year between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists them as a Species of Low Concern and estimates the species as an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. However, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane (a subspecies) is endangered, largely from conversion of their wet pine savanna habitat into pine plantations. This population is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. Another isolated population in Florida is of concern but not presently endangered. Sandhill Crane populations recover slowly, partly because each breeding pair usually has only one chick per year that survives to fledging. The future of Sandhill Cranes is mainly tied to the fate of their habitat. It’s particularly important to conserve wetlands in the ranges of nonmigratory populations, and in staging and wintering areas where large migratory flocks congregate.
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