Chris Lorenz | Dreamstime.com
Sandhill cranes seek our warmer marshes for their winter getaway.
Wintertime in Texas brings cooler weather, holiday spirit and family time, as well as some of the most magnificent birds in the country.
Rising 3 to 4 feet tall, sandhill cranes are gray, heavy-bodied birds with slender necks, long legs and a red, beret-like patch of skin atop their heads. Sometimes their feathers appear rust-colored because they preen themselves by rubbing iron-rich mud on them.
There are two migratory subspecies, greater and lesser. Sandhill cranes start migrating south in October from Canada and northern states. Roughly 700,000 spend the winter along the Texas coast and in the Panhandle.
Sandhill cranes’ broad wings (5-foot wingspan) beat slowly and steadily, making it seem as if they’re gliding through the air. While flying, their famous bugling calls can be heard from miles away. This surreal trumpeting sound is a result of long windpipes that coil into their breastbone, creating a deep, rich sound.
In Texas, they prefer open areas such as wetlands, prairies and grasslands. Some hot spots include wet fields around Houston and inand . Large numbers can also be seen at in the Texas Panhandle.
Sandhill cranes winter in gigantic flocks, sometimes numbering in tens of thousands. Typically, they are opportunistic feeders, preferring roots, grains and insects and occasionally snacking on small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. December to February is the peak time to see them in Texas.
When they’re not enjoying their Texas getaway, it’s breeding time. Since they don’t breed in Texas, we often don’t get to see their impressive mating dance moves. Courting cranes will stretch their wings, pump their heads and energetically bow and leap into the air. Sometimes they’ll throw plants and dirt on each other.
The adults form long-lasting pair bonds. After the chicks hatch, it takes two months for them to become independent. By fall, juvenile cranes can be seen migrating with their parents.
Some people confuse sandhill cranes with whooping cranes, another big bird that visits Texas in winter. While sandhill cranes are legal to hunt in Texas, whooping cranes are federally endangered and therefore illegal to hunt. The only endangered subspecies of sandhill cranes are the Mississippi and Cuba sandhills; they do not occur in Texas.
» Like this story? If you enjoy reading articles like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.