The greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida) is listed as endangered by the State of
Washington.  The Washington subpopulation is designated as part of the Central Valley
Population of greater sandhill cranes, which winters in the Central Valley of California.  The
remaining cranes in the Central Valley Population nest in Oregon, northeastern California and
southern British Columbia (Littlefield et al 1979, Cooper 1996).   During migration and the
winter season, the lesser sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis) and the Canadian sandhill
crane (Grus canadensis rowani) also occur in Washington.   The identification of these
subspecies away from their breeding ranges is difficult due to their similarity in appearance and
the separation of some of these  populations is still debated.

Sandhill cranes were once considered common breeders both east and west sides of the
Washington Cascades.  However prior to 1975, the last known nesting record was in 1941 on the
Yakama Indian Reservation, Yakima County (Jewett et al 1953).  Summering cranes were not
documented again until 1974 when six were observed in the Glenwood Valley of Klickitat
County.   During the next decade, ground and aerial surveys documented one to three breeding
crane pairs and occasional production in the Glenwood Valley, as well as a summering pair on
the Yakama Indian Reservation (H. Cole  pers. comm.).  In 1994, the crane pair on the Yakama
Indian Reservation was confirmed as nesting (Leach 1995).

 In 1995, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, which administers Conboy Lake NWR,
initiated an intensive monitoring program to further assess the population of greater sandhill
cranes nesting in the valley.  The program emphasis was to locate all occupied crane territories,
document breeding success, and determine the population size.  Ground surveys for cranes are
enhanced by conducting helicopter flights during the nesting season and mid- summer to locate
nests and colts (non-fledged young).  These aerial flights are a cooperative effort between the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the
Yakama Indian Nation.   Survey coverage included the public and private lands within the
Glenwood Valley and historic and potential sites on the Yakama Indian Reservation.  In 1997,
this effort was expanded to private timberlands and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest through
the cooperation of Champion International and the U.S. Forest Service.

Sandhill cranes begin arriving on the breeding areas in late February to early March.   Ground
surveys and territory monitoring are initiated in mid April and conducted at approximately two
week intervals during the nesting season.   Monitoring is intensified once hatching commences
to determine the number of colts present, their survival until fledging, and their habitat/territory
use.  Monitoring is reduced after fledging but continues until the cranes depart southward in
early to mid October.

A helicopter survey is conducted in late May or early June to locate nest sites,  verify ground
data and survey sites inaccessible from the ground.  Nest sites are visited after hatching or nest
failure to determine clutch size.  A second helicopter flight is conducted in July, approximately
six weeks after the peak hatching period.  This flight assesses the survival of colts and is used to
assist in locating previously undetected colts for banding purposes.  Surviving colts are color-banded when possible and monitored until they fledge to determine annual production.

Results and Discussion
Breeding Pairs
The number of observed breeding pairs increased considerably once intensive monitoring was
initiated in 1995.  It is expected that some pairs remained undetected during pre-1995 surveys,
thus the current population increase may not  necessarily represent recent recruitment into the
breeding population.  The Glenwood Valley harbors the majority of the breeding crane pairs,
which nest and forage on Conboy Lake NWR and adjacent private lands.   This poses some
complications to monitoring and banding operations, however the refinement of survey
techniques and the accumulation of territory data over the past four years has enhanced the
ability to determine nesting status and estimate populations.    

A total of six breeding pairs of sandhill cranes were confirmed in 1995 within the Glenwood
Valley, while one nest was observed on the Yakama Indian Reservation.  Three additional pairs
were confirmed nesting in 1996.  During 1997, twelve breeding pairs were confirmed in the
Glenwood Valley, one within the Panakanic Valley and two on the Yakama Indian Reservation. 
Fourteen pairs nested in the Glenwood Valley in 1998.  Nesting elsewhere was not confirmed
due to problems conducting the aerial surveys.  

Based on the 1998 data, five additional non-breeding birds were present including two banded
subadults from 1997.  The minimum breeding age of cranes varies geographically ranging from
three years to seven years and cranes generally mate for life (Tacha and Nesbitt 1994).  In 1998,
two sibling males banded in 1996 nested with unbanded females.  Although these attempts
failed, it suggests that factors such as food, habitat, and mate availability are not inhibiting
population growth at this time.  Except for the Glenwood and Panakanic Valleys, and the
Yakama Indian Reservation, there are no known breeding  sites elsewhere in Washington.  The
1998 post-breeding population of greater sandhill cranes was estimated at 33-39 adult cranes and
five fledged young.  Table 1 summarizes the estimated population, number of breeding pairs and
known fledglings from 1990 to 1998.

Nesting success and production determination is problematic.  Nests and colts fall victim to a
variety of natural and man-made factors.  Predators such as ravens and coyotes predate nests,
and colts are particularly vulnerable to coyote predation.  There is considerable information
implicating these species as potentially significant crane predators (Littlefield 1995).  

Nesting success is also impacted by annual water conditions.  A sudden influx of water due to
snowmelt or rainfall may inundate the over-water nest, while dry conditions may expose the nest
to ground predators which are otherwise deterred by water.  Water conditions also directly affect
the timing of agricultural activities such as grazing and haying.  Crane nests and colts on private
lands are subject to trampling by cattle.  Cranes also extensively utilize private hay fields for
foraging which may expose colts to increased mortality during haying operations.  This problem
has been documented at sites outside Washington.  Haying operations on public lands are now
restricted until after colts have fledged. 

Annual crane production is relatively low due to the many factors that plague the nests and colts. 
 This low nest success and colt survival is countered by the relatively long life span of adult
cranes, which may approach 20 years.   The documented annual production in the Washington
population has ranged from zero to five colts.  Fledging usually occurs by August 1 in the
Glenwood Valley.  Annual production is determined by the number of colts known to reach
flight stage.  Production data is summarized in Table 1.

A banding program was initiated in 1996 to collect long-term data on individual cranes.  The
data sought from this endeavor includes winter survival and site fidelity of juveniles, longevity
of adults, mate and nest site fidelity, limits of foraging territory and age at first breeding. 
Banding has focused on colts since they have proved the easiest to capture.  Colts are targeted
for capture and banding at approximately six weeks of age, just prior to fledging. 

Cranes are color-marked on one leg with a USFWS metal band and a blue-white-blue color band
(site band).   The opposite leg is banded with two unique color combinations for individual
identification.  The color scheme of the site band designates that the crane was banded in

Four colts were color-banded in 1996 on Conboy Lake NWR.  Two of these colts (siblings)
survived to fledging.  These two colts were observed near the town of Glenn, Glenn County, CA
on January 14, 1997 (H. Tangermann pers. comm.).  This is the first observation verifying that
the Washington greater sandhill crane population winters in the Central Valley.  These two
banded subadult cranes returned to the Glenwood Valley in 1997, and nested in 1998.  

Two of four fledged colts were color-banded in 1997.  These two banded subadult cranes also
returned to Conboy Lake NWR  in 1998, and were subsequently observed during the fall
migration (29 September) at Lower Klamath NWR (J. Beckstrand, C. Herziger, pers. comm.) 
Three colts were color-banded in 1998; one fledged, one was predated, the status of the other is

Preliminary information from the banding program has provided insights into the fall migration
and overwintering sites of the Washington subpopulation of greater sandhill cranes.  It also
indicates that the subadult cranes have a relatively strong fidelity to their natal grounds and may
breed at an early age, if habitat conditions and food availability are adequate.  Monitoring of
color-banded cranes also indicates that mortality primarily occurs on the breeding grounds prior
to fledging.

Overall, Washington's nesting population of greater sandhill cranes is increasing.  However,
there currently appears to be a lack of suitable habitat for expansion outside of the known
nesting localities.  The long-term survival of this nesting population is tenuous due to increasing
development in the Glenwood Valley, and the difficulty in managing refuge habitat due to
competing agricultural interests and inholdings within the refuge's proposed boundaries.

TABLE 1. Greater Sandhill Crane: Breeding Pairs and Production, 1990-1998

1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998*
6 8 6 6 8 16 24 34 33
# Breeding
3 3 3 3 3 6 9 12 14
# Young
1 1 3 0 0 1 3 4 5
1990-1994 data is based on incidental observations; the numbers presented are
unconfirmed estimates.

* this data includes only the Glenwood Valley; due to problems conducting the aerial
flights, status of the three off-refuge nest sites was unknown 

Literature Cited

Cooper, J.M. 1996.  Status of the sandhill crane in British Columbia.  Wildlife Bulletin, ISSN
0829-9560; no. B-83. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Wildlife Branch, Victoria, B.C.
30 pp.

Jewett, S.A., W.P. Taylor. W.T. Shaw, and J.W. Aldrich. 1953.  Birds of Washington State.
University of Washington Press, Seattle. 767 pp.

Leach, R.H. 1995. Confirmed sandhill crane nesting in Yakima County, Washington. 
Northwestern Naturalist. 76:148.

Littlefield, C.D. 1995. Sandhill crane nesting habitat, egg predators, and predator history on
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. Northwestern Naturalist. 76:137-143.

Littlefield, C.D., and S.P. Thompson. 1979.  Distribution and status of the Central Valley
population of greater sandhill cranes. in J.C. Lewis, ed. Proceedings 1978 Crane Workshop.
Colorado State Univ. Press, Fort Collins. 

Tacha, T.C., S.A. Nesbitt, and P.A. Vohs. 1994.   Sandhill Crane. in T.C. Tacha and C.E.Braun,
eds.  Migratory shore and upland game bird management in North America.  International
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Washington, D.C. 223 pp.

Submitted by: Joseph Engler, Wildlife Biologist and Eric Anderson, Biological Technician,
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex