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Earth Notes: Wintering Sandhill Cranes

National Wildlife Federation

The sight of Sandhill Cranes in the Southwest is a sure sign that winter is coming. The birds have long migrated to the region between their breeding seasons in colder climates like Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Though their numbers fluctuate, populations in Arizona and New Mexico have steadily increased over the last several decades.

Sandhill Cranes’ wintering grounds in the Southwest are well-documented. Centuries ago, Indigenous people carved petroglyphs of them into rocks along the lower Gila River. During the 1851 expedition of U.S. Army Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves from the Four Corners area to Yuma, he reported seeing a robust population of the birds in a ‘large, shallow lake’ on the San Francisco Peaks. And in the late 1800’s, ornithologist Edgar Mearns documented a small number of breeding Sandhill Cranes at Mormon Lake, southeast of Flagstaff.

At the turn of the 19th century though, there was a major decline in their populations across North America, largely due to hunting, human impact and habitat changes. By the early 1960’s, there were only 210 documented birds along the lower Colorado River.

But towards the end of that decade, Sandhill Cranes began to appear in abundance in the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeastern Arizona. Their numbers became so big at one point in the early 1980’s that some farmers complained they were causing crop damage. As a result, the Arizona Game and Fish Department began issuing a limited number of hunting permits. Legal hunts are still allowed in some areas, though not along the lower Gila and Colorado Rivers.

November through February is the prime time to see Sandhill Cranes in the Southwestern U.S.