Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Sandhill Crane - Antigone canadensis
GRUIDAE Members:
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General Comments The Sandhill Crane is one of the largest birds, in terms of size (standing about 4 feet tall), and the sighting of one or several in a plowed field is a memorable experience, as this is a rare and unpredictable visitor to the state. One or two subspecies breed in Florida and southern Georgia, and a few places elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, but the main breeding range of the species is across the western two-thirds of Canada and locally in the Great Lakes states. These northern populations are migratory, and there is a narrow flight corridor from the Great Lakes area, in a south-southeastern direction in late fall, to wintering grounds in Florida. Thus, the extreme southwestern tip of the state is close to the eastern edge of the normal flight path in fall and spring. These migratory flights are diurnal, and as the birds call in flight, in small flocks, one can spot such a flock high overhead. Thankfully, the species has been expanding its breeding range eastward in recent years, and strays/migrants are now occurring over the entire state more frequently, with a handful of sightings each year in the past decade. In fact, it is now wintering in the Coastal Plain at a few sites. When seen on the ground in the state, cranes are usually found in wide open places, especially plowed or stubble (preferably corn) fields; closely mowed fields, pastures, shallow pools, and impoundment margins are others habitat used, especially near or with Tundra Swans. However, unlike most "waterbirds", they are not tied to water when stopping over in the Carolinas. In 2022, a pair actually nested in the state!

NOTE: In 2016, the AOS Check-List Committee moved this species out of the genus Grus into the genus Antigone.

Breeding Status Accidental Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient and winter visitor/resident, mainly along the coast and in tidewater areas; increasing. Accidental breeder. Rare and unpredictable from late Oct through May, and very rare Jun to late Oct (with records for all 12 months). Somewhat more records from the Lake Mattamuskeet and Pungo Lake areas than elsewhere, as the species associates freely with swans and/or geese in plowed or stubble fields. Small groups (mostly under ten but rarely to 15) have recently spent the winter at Pungo refuge and near the Beaufort (Carteret) airport. Away from tidewater, a very rare to rare (but increasing) transient/visitor, in late fall, winter, and spring -- highest numbers (surprisingly) in the northern parts of the province, particularly in the Edgecombe area. Shockingly, in spring 2022 a pair built a nest in inland Brunswick in May, but the outcome was uncertain [Chat 86:77 link]. One was seen again at this site in spring 2023, from 1-6 May, but apparently a second bird was never seen. Peak counts: 39, along NC 33 just east of Whitakers (Edgecombe), 1-23 Dec 2019; 19, southern Halifax, 18 Jan 2020; 17, between Hobgood and Oak City, 23 Dec 2008; 16 at several other locations.
Piedmont Transient and winter visitor. Very rare (formerly) to rare (now), increasing in recent years. Records scattered across the province; more likely in Dec-Jan, but scattered records for essentially all months. Most unusual was a pair of cranes in a field adjacent to fast-food restaurants in Tramway (Lee) from 7-14 May 2015; and another in an agricultural field in northern Iredell from 30 May - 4 Jun 2023 was nearly as surprising. Peak counts: 21 (counted from a video) in flight over Lenoir (Caldwell), 28 Nov 2018; 12-14 in flight in Durham, 2 Mar 2006; 11 in flight over Flat River impoundment (Durham), 21 Dec 2020; 11 on the Greensboro CBC, 17 Dec 2022; 9 in flight over Falls Lake, 4 Jan 2013.
Mountains Transient, mainly overhead; sparingly in winter. Rare to possibly uncommon migrant in the extreme southwestern counties, and rare migrant in the southwestern counties; most records are of birds passing overhead without putting down. Only four records north of Buncombe and Madison -- one in flight over Roan Mountain (Mitchell) on 15 Nov 2014; one in a corn field in Watauga on 18 Mar 2017; 28 in flight over Boone (Watauga) on 18 Feb 2022; and three in flight over Hump Mountain Peak (Avery) on 18 Feb 2023. Mostly mid-Nov thru late Mar; migratory flights are normally from mid-Nov to mid-Dec, and returning north mid-Feb to late Mar, but there are a handful of winter records. Quite late were one on a church lawn near Robbinsville (Graham) on 27 May 2014; and one in a field in Little River (Henderson) from 31 May - 5 Jun 2014. Peak counts: 100, Weaverville, 16 Feb 2003; 34, in flight over Asheville (Buncombe), 26 Feb 2019; 28, over Boone (see above); 12, in flight over southwestern Clay, 7 Mar 2020; 11, Haywood, 15 Feb 2003.
Finding Tips Cranes are more likely to be seen in the state in Cherokee in late fall or early spring, where it is likely that a few flocks pass by overhead annually. However, as this county is hundreds of miles from most birders in the state, this is not a reasonable option. There are typically one to several records in recent years from large fields in the lower Coastal Plain -- Pungo refuge, around the margins of the Beaufort airport, and in large fields in the northern Coastal Plain, such as east and northeast of Tarboro (Edgecombe/Halifax).
Attribution LeGrand[2023-08-09], LeGrand[2023-05-17], LeGrand[2023-03-09]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.