The sandhill crane: A restoraton success story

Imagine that the robin was an endangered species. If one landed in your yard, it would be pretty exciting.

Or, what if the cardinal were a rare bird? The sight of a bright red male on a winter day would make headlines.

These birds are common, though, and we tend to have a pretty ho-hum attitude when we see them.

Just 10 years ago, the sandhill crane was a rare sight. Seeing — or hearing — a flock of these big birds brought people out of their houses to watch them. Sandhills are now becoming fairly common. Not a ho-hum bird, but a regularly-seen bird.

In recent months, a family of sandhill cranes has made a habit of sauntering in the middle of Crane Road in St. Charles numerous times. (Yes, it's fitting that cranes take over Crane Road!) These huge birds, standing five feet tall, seem oblivious to cars as they stroll. I've shooed them off the road so that cars could pass.

Another pair of cranes cruises through the grounds of Creek Bend Nature Center at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles. They always take their sweet time, taking careful, thoughtful steps with those long legs.

As a species, the sandhill crane has had a roller-coaster ride in the past 150 years. The wholesale destruction of wetlands combined with unregulated hunting led to the loss of thousands of these majestic birds. By 1890, there were no more breeding pairs of sandhill cranes in Illinois. In the early 1900s, there were less than 300 individuals in their entire range.

The Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918 afforded protection for all migratory birds, including cranes. But the loss of wetland habitat continued unabated until 1972 when the Clean Water Act was passed, protecting marshes, rivers, and lakes. Sandhill crane numbers were still dangerously low, and by 1989 the sandhill crane was listed as an endangered species in Illinois. Recovery plans were drawn, and there were concerted efforts to save the species from the brink of extinction.

Wetland restoration carried out on the federal, state, and local level proved beneficial for cranes, and for scores of other wetland species. By 1999, the status of the sandhill crane was changed from “endangered” to “threatened” — a significant upgrade.

Ten years later, in 2009, wildlife biologists “delisted” the sandhill crane from the threatened and endangered list altogether. Cranes have nested at several sites in Kane County.

A report by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center stated that the greater sandhill crane population has rebounded “dramatically” and is still on the upswing. The report also states that “Restoration of (wetlands) through re-flooding and management of water levels has played a critical role in re-establishing the ecological functions and diversity of previously drained wetlands, especially in the upper Midwestern United States. … Prescribed burning has also been used to restore open meadows and savannas.”

The sandhill crane is a restoration success story, but the story's not over yet. The crane is still protected, as are all migratory birds, and wetland restoration is ongoing. If you would like to help restore native habitat for cranes and other wildlife species in Kane County, join us at volunteer events listed at

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by emailing

Sandhill cranes have nested at several sites in Kane County. COURTESY OF VALERIE BLAINE
Due in a large part to wetland restoration efforts, the sandhill crane population has bounced back from being endangered. The birds are now common in Illinois. Daily Herald File Photo
  A juvenile sandhill crane forages for food with two adult cranes at the Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda. Paul Valade/
  Sandhill cranes circle to catch hot air columns at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. This circling on clear sunny days gives the birds more energy, which aids in their migration. Daniel White/
Wildlife biologist Bill Graser photographed this sandhill crane at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Crane identification

There are five subspecies of sandhill cranes with nine distinct populations. Here in northern Illinois, we see the eastern population of the greater sandhill crane.

They are big birds, standing about five feet tall and weighing from 10 to 14 pounds. They're gray overall, with a red face and nape. By preening their feathers in iron-rich mud, they take on a rusty appearance. Their black legs are long and spindly.

In flight, cranes can be heard more than seen. They fly in large flocks at altitudes so great that often they are just specks in the sky. The Rocky Mountain subpopulation was clocked flying at 8,900 feet. To hear their unique rattling sound, check out this link: <a href=""></a>.

— Valerie Blaine

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