Types of Cranes: 4 Cranes with pictures

There are 4 species of crane in the ABA (American Birding Association) taxonomy list. The family is Gruidae and the wider group is Gruiformes, which also includes the families of Rallidae (rails, coots and gallinules), Otididae (bustards) and Turnicidae (button-quails). It is certainly an eclectic mix! In this post, we are looking at the species of crane found in the United States.

Photo by Frank Schulenburg


There are 15 members of the Gruidae family and they are found on every continent except for South America. To the average eye, cranes may look like herons but they are substantially larger with a bulkier body. Heavy, short bills and trailing legs in flight are also diagnostic. These cranes feed in open pastures and marshes and as they nest there too, they are in constant danger from human development.

Cranes have a slightly different arrangement on their feet. They have 4 toes – 3 pointing forward and the hallux , which points backwards. However, it is elevated and only when the bird is sinking into soft ground does it make contact.

Because hatchling cranes are so vulnerable, they have to be moving very quickly. Hence, they will be out of the nest shortly after hatching, even as they are covered in an orange down.

Photo by nigel from vancouver

Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Photo by Frankyboy5

Identification and Size

Sandhill Cranes, as all others, are very large, elegant birds with a sedate manner when not in courtship. Their plumage is largely gray with some rusty markings on the wings. In their second year, the cranes develop that stunning red cap that contrasts with a bright yellow eye. Male and female birds have the same plumage.

The Sandhill Crane has a thick bill which it uses to dig around for suitable vegetation, grains and small creatures. The rest of the head is mostly bald, with some bristles around the forehead, lores and crown.

Height: 39.3 – 47.2 inches
Wingspan: 70 – 78 inches
Male Weight: 8.3 pounds
Female Weight: 7.4 pounds

Photo by Joseph C. Boone


During the human expansion across the continental United States, the populations of Sandhill Cranes became fragmented and semi-isolated. Now that numbers are recovering, these populations are merging as they overlap. This makes monitoring and studying the cranes challenging and complicated. There are established populations that migrate, are resident and there is a mid-continent group.

In Florida and Mississippi, there are 2 subspecies of Sandhill Crane – A. c. pratensis and A. c. pulla respectively. They are both non-migratory populations.

Migratory populations of Sandhill Cranes can be found all across the U.S. including western Alaska. The breeding range is from Michigan, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Utah and north eastern California. There are 6 distinct populations within this group and monitoring shows no evidence of interbreeding.

Photo by Frank Schulenburg

The Eastern Flyway population belong to the subspecies A. c. tabida and is present in east coast states from Maine, south to the Dakotas. Most of this population can be found in the Great Lakes region. They are part of the Mid-Continent Population, which also contains the A. c. canadensis and A. c. rowani subspecies. These groups breed from northern Minnesota, through central Canada and into Alaska. The monitoring of these groups, their breeding grounds and migration routes is complex with many areas identified and much overlapping of the populations.


Audio by Thomas Magarian

Habitat and Diet

Sandhill Cranes are naturally occuring in the United States and they have a range of habitats including:

  • grasslands
  • pine savannah
  • agricultural land
  • marshes
  • sedge meadows
  • fens

The cranes generally breada in shallow marshes and open freshwater wetlands.

Photo by HblairH

Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous and so will eat anything suitable that they can forage on and under the ground. They will also probe through mud and in shallow water. Foods consumed include:

  • waste grain
  • smal vertebrates
  • small invertebrates
  • hatchling birds
  • small rodents
  • eggs
  • amphibians
  • acorns
  • tubers
  • berries

Interesting Fact

During courtship the Sandhill Crane puts on a spectacular display and have been subject to much study. 8 displays are recognized as part of the courtship process:

  • bill up
  • copulation
  • non-aggressive calls
  • upright wing stretch
  • horizontal head pump
  • vertical toss
  • dancing bow
  • dancing vertical leap

Whooping Crane (Grus americana)

Photo by Sasata

Identification and Size

The Whooping Crane is larger than the Sandhill Crane and it is, in fact, the tallest bird in the States. Sexes are alike with bright white plumage and black primaries, which can only be seen in flight. The crown is a deep red and a dark gray/black patch behind the bill, extending to under the eye. The eye is bright yellow.

Height: 59 inches
Male Weight: 16 pounds
Female Weight: 14 pounds

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture


Much less common than the Sandhill Crane, with populations restricted to the eastern and central United States, and a western group. Historically, it was thought that there were several migration routes from north to southern wintering grounds. The AWP population winters in the Gulf of Mexico in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas and migrates to breeding grounds in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. This group is the only Whooping Crane population that is self-sustaining. Attempts have been made to re-introduce the crane to Florida, Louisiana and in the Rocky Mountains. All three have failed to establish successfully.


Audio by Sue Riffe

Habitat and Diet

The populations of Whooping Crane have not moved or extended locations. The breeding area in Wood Buffalo National Park is a wetland area surrounded by spruce and willow and the cranes nest primarily in bulrush areas. Wetlands feature heavily again in the wintering grounds but birds will also look for tidal flats. Migration stopovers are also similar but there may be more pressure on them due to human development.

The Whooping Crane is also omnivorous and will eat:

  • crustaceans
  • aquatic insects
  • molluscs
  • minnows
  • amphibians
  • snakes
  • tubers
  • rodents
  • grasshoppers
  • waste corn
Photo by Sandhillcrane

Interesting Fact

Bonded pairs of Whooping Crane also have social and courtship movements. Some of these are:

  • spread-hold
  • unison call
  • tuck-bob
  • object toss
  • gape-sweep
  • bill stab

Common Crane (Grus grus)

Photo by Andreas Trepte

Identification and Size

Similar to the Sandhill Crane, the Common Crane is a mid gray with some rust on the wings. It has black primaries and a black throat extending to around the bill. A white patch around the ear flows down the nape. A small red crown develops into a black patch. Juveniles only develop this plumage in their third year.

Height: 37 – 47 inches
Wingspan: 71 – 79 inches
Male Weight: 11.2 – 13.4 pounds
Female Weight: 9.9 – 13 pounds

Photo by Savithri Singh


There are only just over a thousand sightings of the Common Crane throughout the continental United States on eBird. These have been in the mid-west and western states. It is thought that these birds may be vagrants, joining Sandhill Cranes on their migration from north east Asia. Some are certainly escapees.


Audio by Grzegorz Lorek

Habitat and Diet

Prefers wetlands in shallow areas, including forests. It will look for food in agricultural fields during winter.

The Common Crane is also omnivorous and will eat:

  • roots
  • tubers
  • grasses
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • invertebrates
  • amphibians
  • rodents
  • snakes
Photo by Savithri Singh

Interesting Fact

The Common Crane is also known as the Eurasian Crane and is mostly found in Europe. It is only one of 4 species of crane that is not classified as threatened.

Hooded Crane (Grus monacha)

Photo by Alastair Rae

Identification and Size

The smallest of our cranes, the Hooded Crane is a darker gray on the body with a pale gray neck and red forehead.

Height: 35 – 39 inches
Wingspan: 63 – 71 inches
Male Weight: 7.2 – 10.7 pounds
Female Weight: 7.5 – 8.2 pounds


Rarely seen outside of Asian breeding grounds. Sightings in the U.S. only number 128 on eBird and the ABA only added it to their checklist in 2021 after a bird was shot in Alaska. Birds seen in the U.S. are vagrants.


Audio by Phil Gregory

Habitat and Diet

During breeding periods, the Hooded Crane can be found in secluded forest wetlands. Its range extends in non-breeding times to grassy areas around rivers, shallow lakes and marshes.

Diet depends on location at breeding or over wintering sites. Foods consumed include:

  • acquatic plants
  • berries
  • insects
  • amphibians
  • grains
  • rice

Interesting Fact

The Hooded Crane is classed as Vulnerable and numbers have declined due to human expansion and conflict with farms. However, the remoteness of the breeding sites give hope for this bird’s future.


Where can I see cranes in the U.S.?

During the spring, the Platte River in Nebraska plays host to around 80% of all Sandhill Cranes during their spring migration. A good place to start your search.

How many cranes are there in the U.S.?

Only the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes are native to the United States. The Common and Hooded Crane are rare sightings.

Why is the Whooping Crane endangered?

Simple answer and the same as for many other species – habitat loss usually caused by human intervention.

In many cultures, cranes are revered and looked upon as mythological creatures. They are certainly elegant animals and if you have ever seen a crane in courtship display, they are magnificent.

Thanks to https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/home for the scientific data.

Photo by Tomere
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