At first glance, the sight of a sandhill crane in an open field appears otherworldly.
With a large, tail-less body perched atop a pair of spindly legs and an elongated neck and a formidable beak, the sandhill crane is unlike any other bird that appears on the Pennsylvania landscape.
Capable of reaching heights greater than 4 feet and possessing a wingspan of nearly 7 feet, sandhill cranes are the tallest bird in the state. And while their arrival is still relatively new and their numbers few, sandhill cranes are expanding in Pennsylvania.
Since 2013 the Pennsylvania Game Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been conducting sandhill crane surveys every fall. This year’s survey yielded 170 cranes during the October/November survey period, four more cranes than were observed last year and 72 more since the project began in 2013.
That’s good news to PGC wildlife biologist Lisa Williams.
“It’s an exciting story in conservation right now,” she said. “We often hear about species that are declining, but the sandhill crane in Pennsylvania is increasing and I see that continuing.”
In 2017 cranes were spotted in six counties. The northwest region has been a stronghold, and cranes were observed in Crawford and Lawrence counties. But the northeast counties of Bradford, Lackawanna, Sullivan and Wyoming accounted for the other sightings in the 2017 survey.
The shift to the northeast is significant, according to Williams, because it may indicate a new migration pathway is emerging.
Sandhill cranes spend the summer in eastern Canada and migrate down through the United States to winter in Florida. Typically, sandhill cranes funnel down through the Great Lake states when they migrate, staying west of the Appalachian Mountains.
“Now we see this shift to the east, which could be a result of expanding numbers and cranes looking for new territory,” Williams said. “I’d love to work with other states to study this potentially new migration pathway. The cranes appearing in the northeast are likely hugging the coast as they migrate, and it’s important to determine where those stopover points are.”
So what’s attracting sandhill cranes to the northwestern and northeastern parts of the state?
Williams said it’s habitat.
Cranes avoid mountainous areas and prefer farmlands that border wetlands. They often forage in farm fields for grain and don’t hunt in open water like other crane species.
Sandhill cranes are ground-nesting birds, Williams said, and they seek shrub cover near wetlands to lay their eggs.
“We have a lot of habitat that could lead to more expansion in the future,” Williams said.
Still, Pennsylvania’s sandhill crane population is considered migratory because the majority of sightings occur in the fall.
There are a few instances of nesting pairs in the state, primarily in the northwest. There is also some evidence of cranes spending the entire winter in the state, and that has occurred exclusively in the northwest.
“We don’t know of any over-wintering in the northeast, but I don’t want to say never with these birds,” Williams said.
While Pennsylvania’s crane population is small, the species is doing fairly well in North America. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set the eastern population of sandhill cranes at more than 95,000.
Despite their abundance, sandhill crane numbers can be vulnerable. Because they’re ground-nesting birds, eggs are vulnerable to predation. There are also risk factors that come with migration and Williams said cranes have low reproduction rates. A female crane has to be 7 years old before it can raise a colt (chick), and they only produce one to two colts a year, she said.
As sandhill crane sightings continue to increase in the state, Williams cautioned that it’s important to observe them from a distance. There have been instances of people trying to feed cranes, she said, which is something to avoid.
“These are 4-foot tall birds with a heck of a bill. You don’t want to get too close to that,” Williams said.
“The expansion of sandhill cranes is still a new situation for us. They’re such a dramatic bird and it’s jaw-dropping to see one.”